PITTSFIELD -- With the opening bars of "West Side Story," a kind of electric charge surges through the audience. The show may be marking its 50th anniversary this year, but the combination of Leonard Bernstein's music, Arthur Laurents's book (adapted from "Romeo and Juliet"), Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, and the stunning direction and choreography of Jerome Robbins created a life force that is as vibrant today as the day it opened.
Barrington Stage Company, launching its first full season in its beautifully renovated, 520-seat theater here, has gathered its own remarkably talented creative team, including Julianne Boyd as director, Darren R. Cohen as music director, and Joshua Bergasse re-creating Robbins's original choreography.
When Tony (the impossibly handsome Chris Peluso) sings "Something's Coming," the audience can't help but get caught up in his anticipation. From there, Boyd keeps the sense of urgency high and the intensity of the drama escalates quickly.
The rhythm of this musical is breathtaking, and Boyd makes the connections between quiet dramatic moments ("Cool"), comic relief ("America," "I Feel Pretty"), and heartbreaking romance ("One Hand, One Heart") perfectly seamless. Bernstein's shifts from Latin mambo to soaring classical riffs to Broadway-style production numbers are nearly overwhelming, and yet there is always just the right amount of space for a dramatic scene.
When the war council meets at Doc's Drugstore, the temperature is high, but when Riff shouts to Doc that "you were never my age," the generation gap rings painfully true, whether the conversation happened in Elizabethan England, 1950s New York, or today.
Bergasse's re-creation of Robbins's choreography overflows with personality as well as some amazing visual images. All of the Jets have an earthy attitude, but each one is able to carve out an individual identity even as they work together as a team. Standouts include Justin Bohon as the swaggering Riff, Michael Mindlin as the cautious but eager Baby John, and Beth Crandall as the tomboy Anybodys.
The Sharks on the other hand, are supercharged with passion, with Freddy Ramirez giving Bernardo such intensity you can almost see the smoke coming out of him. Jacqueline Colmer would make Chita Rivera proud, since her Anita is so full of fire and a wonderfully fierce personality. The ease with which she and her pals move through the choreography for "America" makes it both amusing and powerful.
Another showstopper is the "Somewhere" ballet, which is given such grace and sense of longing, it becomes heart-wrenching. Star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony meet with the rest of the gang members for a wistful break from the harsh reality of city life. Julie Craig gives Maria a lovely arc from naive, sheltered teen to wise young woman, with her crystal clear soprano delivering earnestness and sincerity.
Music director and conductor Cohen does a beautiful job leading his 11-piece orchestra through the complicated score to create the essential heartbeat of the show. No matter how many times you've seen "West Side Story," this Barrington ensemble makes it feel completely new again.