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One hand, one heart: (l-r) Peluso and Craig in West Side Story.

A Show for Us

By James Yeara

West Side Story

Based on a conception by Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Julianne Boyd

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through July 14

Fifty years ago, West Side Story opened on Broadway. It didn’t win the Tony for Best Musical. It did win Best Choreography for Jerome Robbins. Robbins was so insistent on the importance and realism of the dances that during the rehearsal process he forbade the actors creating the Jets and the Sharks to socialize. Robbins was such a creative force for West Side Story (as a “conceiver-director-choreographer” should be) that instead of stars for leads, he chose talented-but-little-known dancers and integrated the dance with the songs and the action. The result took critics some time to catch up to, but in this 50th anniversary year, it’s hard to imagine a more worthy celebration than Barrington Stage Company’s West Side Story. Only someone who doesn’t like theater, doesn’t understand theater, or doesn’t want to be in a theater could fail to be swept up in the excellence of Julianne Boyd’s version of this quintessential American musical.

Not only has Boyd assembled a cast true to Robbins’ intent—these are excellent dancers who integrate the songs with the acting, so that when they sing or dance, it seems as natural as the characters breathing; it’s as if the music and the movement were an extension of the moment. This is a West Side Story that you watch from the opening image—gray clouds in a night sky, a battered chain link fence upstage left, busted wood-board fence upstage right, a metal curved streetlamp center with a “W 41st” over “10th Ave” sign hanging on it—to the closing dirge of the Jets and Sharks marching off, with Maria kneeling center stage. As with BSC’s Follies, the Sondheim hit of the season in 2005, Boyd doesn’t stage a show the way too many directors do, as a carpenter works with boards, but seemingly organically, as if this moment were here now never to be again—not prefabricated and laboriously presented to be admired.

Everyone knows that Robbins based West Side Story on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with the All-American Tony (a Wheaties-box-worthy Chris Peluso) and Puerto Rican immigrant Maria (the whimsical and lovely Julie Craig) as Manhattan’s star-crossed lovers. But West Side Story’s modern resonance goes deeper than its superficial connection to Shakespeare, as BSC’s production makes clear. It’s in the integration (which is the theme of West Side Story, not Romeo and Juliet) of dance, song, character, and action that keeps the musical timely; I found it difficult not to think of current events while watching this now-iconic show. Is “America”—“I want to live in America/Everything free in America,” sung by a passionately riveting Jacqueline Colmer as Anita—the soundtrack to Lou Dobbs’ nightmares? The Gap commercial appropriating the bongos and roughhousing of the show-opening “Jet Song” almost makes it seem campy, but Boyd’s WSS has the muscle to convey the threat: When the Sharks earn applause for their gymnastic dismounts from the top of the 8-foot chain-link fence before the climatic rumble just before intermission, you know that you’ve tapped into something more than the mushy, sentimental posing too many productions rely on.

And the audience isn’t disappointed by the subsequent series of stabbings that seem as timely and senseless as any news reports out of rundown Troy biker bars; this isn’t theater of the grand gesture but of believability. It’s refreshing when stage lovers can look each other in the eyes as fervently as this Tony and Maria; Peluso and Craig have heat. They hold hands as if they never want to let go, and they sing as if their hearts beat in tandem as firmly as their voices meld. And when Tony mounts the fire escape post-stabbing, then collapses into Maria’s arms, their subsequent denouement on her bed, discreetly lit, holds the essence of the musical.

Boyd’s West Side Story is an anniversary production not to be missed by those who long to be moved.

Frothy Fun

Rough Crossing

By Tom Stoppard, directed by Kevin G. Coleman

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., through Sept. 2

The pop and spume of a champagne bottle captures the essence of Kevin Coleman’s direction of Rough Crossing. Act one ends with the song “Where Do We Go From Here?” nearing its climax, to the accompaniment of tea server, fruits, spoons, and assorted silverware and rendered with maximum brio by conniving playwrights Sandor (the inestimable Jonathan Croy) and Alex Gal (a vegetable-nibbling Jason Asprey), conniving leading man Ivor Fish (the debonair Malcolm Ingram), conniving actress Natasha Navratalova (the beguiling Elizabeth Aspenlieder), and the guileless composer Adam Adam (fresh-faced Bill Barclay). With the ship lolling from side to side, Dvorniheck the Steward (LeRoy McClain) perfectly times his sudden entrance to pop the champagne and let spume over stage—and the audience burst into applause as the lights dimmed for intermission. It’s perfection.

Tom Stoppard’s 1984 Rough Crossing is set on board the SS Italian Castle during a cross-Atlantic voyage in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera milieu of the mid-1930s. It’s theater of the grand gesture, full of lazzi and giggles, non sequiturs and misprisions—the stuttering of Adam Adam as he tries to talk to the conniving playwrights, and Natasha’s heavily Russian vowel movements in English, create enough laughs for a whole season of comedy, let alone a single performance. The play is silly and dallies with the innocence of love, or as much as any Stoppard comedy can, especially when old flames ignite over “that pink, round perfection . . . how beautifully they hang there.”

The cast under Coleman’s precise tinkering keeps the pace tight and the comedy moving with flawless timing, and as the voyage of the SS Italian Castle pitches from side to side, Rough Crossing keeps the audience in stitches. It’s a marvel that Shakespeare & Company doesn’t tackle Stoppard’s tongue-twisting, logic-twirling comedies more regularly; here’s a raised glass hoping that the masterpiece On the Razzle is on tap next year.

—James Yeara

Dancing Devil

Herringbone

Book by Tom Cone, music by Skip Kennon, lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, directed by Roger Rees

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through June 24

The stages of musical theater are peppered with the most unexpected and inauspicious of subjects. From the metaphorically thrilling cannibalism in Sweeney Todd to the ridiculously amusing carnivorous plant in Little Shop of Horrors, there is no subject so unprepossessing as to not merit its day on the Great White Way—or way, way off Broadway. To open his third season as artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Roger Rees resurrects one of the truly odd ones, a one-man musical about an 8-year-old tap dancing tyke, George, who becomes possessed by the spirit of a demonic dwarf named Lou.

“Herringbone” refers to the weave of the suit George’s avaricious parents have made for their son, in whom they see a cash cow to stave off the ravages of the Great Depression. It is also the name of the character who narrates the tale of George’s rise and fall from child prodigy to preternatural killer. As Herringbone, B.D. Wong must also play 10 other characters, something his prodigious talent allows him to do with ease as he subtly makes transitions with the slightest changes in voice and movement. Most effective, or disturbing, are his alternations between the innocent George and the darkly inveigling Lou.

Wong is right for the role’s other demands, which include the ability to sing and dance in vaudevillian tradition. Indeed, considering the relative lack of empathy and epiphany in the script and lyrics, it is Wong’s unforced charm as a song-and-dance man that proves the chief reason to see it. His seemingly effortless dance routines, choreographed by Darren Lee, propel the show through scenes that otherwise might merely accumulate as opposed to build. Given that so much of our delight lies in Wong’s fleet feet, it’s unfortunate that the staging or set design in Williams College’s versatile Center Theatre doesn’t allow for clean sightlines to his footwork. His shoes sparkle as they move in and out of light, but they often elude our eyes, which do their own dance between heads to capture Wong’s dance. As a result, the visual rhythms become a bit disjointed.

Under the direction of Dan Lipton, who plays the piano accompaniment (sometimes while being rolled around by Wong), Skip Kennon’s score bounces about playfully while skillfully conveying a sense of its roots in vaudeville and earlier musical theater where notes resolved into tunes, rather than dithering and withering into inconclusive lines like too many contemporary musicals.

Rees has staged all economically with the shrewd intent to let Wong command the space. Considering this and his direction of Bebe Neuwirth off-Broadway in Here Lies Jenny (also a natural for this space), Rees seems to have a knack for small musicals in intimate settings with major talents.

—Ralph Hammann

 


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