PITTSFIELD — If there is a single moment emblematic of all the other moments in “West Side Story,” now in a stunning production at Barrington Stage, it’s “The Dance at the Gym.” The stage boils over with musical tension as the Jets and the Sharks each try to establish dominance of the gym floor with their dancing just as they struggle to own the streets of New York.
A well-meaning adult (Douglas Rees) stands by helplessly as the “kids” act out their anger and frustration, just as Lieutenant Shrank (Rees again) and Doc (Gordon Stanley) later come up short with solutions for gang violence.
And then — from across this crowded room and cultural barriers — Tony (Will Branner) and Maria (Addie Morales) suddenly see each other. The lights dim on the dancers, who melt into the wings; the music slows; and the two teens, now in spotlight, meet in the center of the world.
For me this scene — so theatrically thrilling, thanks to Jerome Robbins’ choreography, recaptured here by Robert La Fosse; Leonard Bernstein’s music that shifts imperceptibly from one style to another; and David Lander’s subtle lighting — provides the evening’s most emotional wallop. Love strikes. And for all the tragedy we know is to come, we have, at least, this one unspoiled moment.
“The Dance at the Gym” comes early in Act I, but every number of this show is absorbing. The co-creators — including Stephen Sondheim, lyrics, and Arthur Laurents, book —shrewdly alternate moods, so tension ebbs and flows. Even after the murders in Act I, for example, we get the light-hearted “I Feel Pretty” and the amusing “Gee, Officer Krupke.” The “Tonight Quintet” exploits an old operatic technique: five voices sing simultaneously about their plans for the night to come, made all the more poignant because we know what the gods do to our plans. And “Somewhere” (with a lovely vocal by Magdalena Rodriguez) is a tender ballet played against an ethereal blue sky.
Director Julianne Boyd, who last mounted this musical in 2007, honors the centennials of both Robbins and Bernstein with a huge cast that is up to the challenges. Tyler Hanes’ Riff is wide-eyed and fierce; Sean Ewing’s Bernardo, on the other hand, is a quiet commander. As Anita, Skyler Volpe is no innocent when it comes to the ways of the world (listen to the words of “America”), but she’s vulnerable and hopeful, too. Juan Caballer’s Action is all pent-up fury, and Alex Swift makes Chino a bewildered young man caught up in situations just beyond his control.
Morales makes a credible dramatic arc from wide-eyed teen to disillusioned woman, and she and Branner are moving on “One Hand, One Heart.” Throughout, Branner’s voice simply soars over the footlights, high and light and accurate. “Something’s Coming” captures all of Tony’s wonder at what life might have to offer besides being a lonely soda jerk.
Music director Darren R. Cohen leads a pit band that, on opening night, had some intonation problems in quieter moments, but which brought appropriate propulsion and orchestral color to the bigger numbers.
Of course, “West Side Story” tells a tale that remains relevant. Immigration? Class? Violence? The “other”?
'West Side Story'
WHERE: Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, Mass.
WHEN: Through Sept. 1
HOW MUCH: $79-$15
MORE INFO: 413.236.8888, or barringtonstageco.org