Barrington Stage Company's 'West Side Story' brings the Broadway Jerome Robbins to Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD — "Fancy Free" or "On the Town?" "Dances at a Gathering" or "Peter Pan?" "Glass Pieces" or "The King and I?" "Afternoon of a Faun" or "Gypsy?" "The Cage" or "Fiddler on the Roof?"

Which Jerome Robbins did you meet first?

Robbins, the legendary dancemaker born 100 years ago, and the creator of the above works, has been called the greatest American-born choreographer we've ever known. But his career had something of a split personality. There are those who know of Robbins mostly via his Broadway hits and those who know of him primarily through his ballet masterpieces. "West Side Story" and "West Side Story Suite" speak to that divide: the first, of course, is the 1957 game-changing paragon of musicals, a continuing staple of live theater; the latter is a "highlights" version that Robbins staged in 1995 for ballet dancers and for the ballet stage. Given the prominent place musical theater has in American life, it's likely that more people know of the Broadway Robbins, but it was in fact a ballet — the 1944 sailors-on-shore-leave-frolic "Fancy Free" — that catapulted the young dancer's choreographic career.

to many, the man was a genius. Stephen Sondheim — whose lyrics for "West Side Story" helped launch his career — once said that Robbins "was the only genius I ever met, genius being endless invention." Accordingly, productions and programs devoted to Robbins are popping up all over during this centenary year; this summer the Berkshires area is teeming with the master's works. To paraphrase "Gypsy's" iconic Mama Rose, everything's coming up Robbins

Beginning Friday (press opening is Wednesday), Barrington Stage Company will present a fully-staged production of "West Side Story," through Sept. 1; Boston Ballet will perform "Fancy Free" at Tanglewood with the BSO on Aug. 18; and at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, the "Stars of American Ballet" — a group of prominent dancers from various companies led by New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht — will perform an all-Robbins program Aug. 22-26.

On a recent afternoon at Barrington Stage Company's rehearsal space in downtown Pittsfield, Robert La Fosse and Nicholas Garr worked on a myriad of details small and large with their cast of Sharks and Jets, the fictional street gangs fighting over their slices of 1950s New York City "turf." Long minutes ticked by as details of stage traffic were worked out. (This choreography, an art in itself, can be under-appreciated, but it's what keeps performers from crashing into one another or, worse, dropping someone.) Bursts of action would be pieced together, and then abruptly halted in order to move onto the next wrinkle. Rather comically, several times the moment for Maria (Addie Morales) and Tony's (Will Branner) fateful first meeting finally arrived, and the two would rush toward each other, nearly swoon with the shock of love at first sight — and then walk matter-of-factly back to the sides of the studio again, waiting for another staging detail to be ironed out. Talk about anticipation!

La Fosse, a former principal dancer with both American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, is the lead choreographer/stager for Barrington's production. La Fosse left ABT to go to NYCB primarily so he could work more frequently with Robbins. (NYCB was where Robbins eventually hung his hat; he remained there, alongside the equally-legendary George Balanchine, for the bulk of his career.) Garr, the production's associate choreographer, has both performed in and staged "West Side Story"; as a former Bernardo, he mostly handles the Sharks' choreography while La Fosse, who was Tony in the original "West Side Story Suite" cast, largely presides over the Jets.

Overall direction is by Barrington's artistic director Julianne Boyd, whose longtime collaborator Darren R. Cohen is serving as the production's musical director. The majority of the show's cast has to possess so-called "triple threat" talent, thanks to Robbins and his "West Side" collaborators composer Leonard Bernstein (who was also born in 1918), playwright Arthur Laurents, and Sondheim. "The music, and the lyrics and the book and the dance are so intertwined," La Fosse said during a break. "It's not a chorus show; [the characters are] all specific, we all know them by now. The cast is the show."

That familiarity that La Fosse is getting at — the way viewers "all know" the characters — is one of Robbins' most precious hallmarks, both in his musicals and in his ballets. Though Robbins often cowered under the idea that he was a "fake," he created work after work in which the performers were decidedly real — human beings who happened to also be dancers and/or actors. The dancers in his ballets are dancing for and with each other; they aren't meant to be aware of an audience, let alone "project" out to it. "[Robbins] was very specific about what he wanted out of dancers in any given role. And he would tirelessly work to achieve it. But it only worked well if it was authentic," former NYCB dancer Russell Kaiser, now the assistant artistic director at Boston Ballet, wrote in an e-mail. "I love how [Robbins] can create a world on stage, a community of individuals living together in that moment." And the atmosphere had to be real, too: "[Robbins] could bring the world around him to life on a stage better than anyone. `Fancy Free' was just what he saw on the streets of New York every day when he was creating it."

Of course the music is key to "West Side's" enduring success too. "When you hear Leonard Bernstein's music in `West Side Story,'" Boyd said while we sat in her office, "it creates an emotional response, and it doesn't leave you, from the first beat of that music. That's what a masterpiece is: when it grabs you, and you enter that world."

Meanwhile the "West Side Story" cast these days, specifically the Puerto Rican Sharks, should more closely represent their characters' ethnicity. "That's so important," La Fosse said, but because one isn't allowed to ask about an auditionee's ethnicity — nor does one's surname necessarily explain one's entire cultural background — he and Boyd relied on visuals. "But that's what the story's about," La Fosse noted. "Skin color."

As racism, xenophobia, classicism, etc., remain ongoing battles in our society, so too are gangs a continuing plague: "relevance" is hardly something even a traditional, mid-20th century setting of "West Side Story" has to sell. "There are gangs in Berkshire County, there are gangs in Pittsfield," Boyd noted. "The difference is, with gangs in the '50s, they fought with chains and belt buckles and bats and sticks. The unusual thing in 'West Side Story' was that [the fighting] went to switch-knives. And what people fought over then was turf—with immigrants coming into an area and locals feeling like they were stealing their turf. We still have immigrants and we still have people feeling like it's their turf and we still have gangs. But now it's a drug war, and guns are the weapons of choice right now."

"West Side Story" also continues to resonate with contemporary viewers because, as La Fosse said, echoing Robbins, "this story is about love." And it's also about "intolerance," La Fosse concedes, but unlike its artistic ancestor, Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," "`West Side Story' is also about hope; [it] leaves you with the feeling that maybe things will get better."

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@gmail.com


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