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Summer Theater: Two Classic Musicals Tour Mass.04:35
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WBUR's critic-at-large reviews "West Side Story" and "Guys and Dolls:"

Ali Ewoldt, right, plays Maria in the current iteration of "West Side Story." (Courtesy)
Ali Ewoldt, right, plays Maria in the current iteration of "West Side Story." (Courtesy)

More than 50 years after it was written, “West Side Story” is still the greatest musical ever written. There hasn’t been a score to equal Leonard Bernstein’s, with its mixture of melodic tunes and Latin and jazz rhythms. Jerome Robbins’s choreography still looks like it was created yesterday. And the lyricist wasn’t exactly tuna fish either — Stephen Sondheim.

If there’s a weak link in the creative team it’s been Arthur Laurents and the book that, unlike the rest of the show, can seem stuck in the 1950s with its faux beatnik gang posings. Laurents, who died last month, decided to toughen up the 2009 revival with slightly punkier Jets and Sharks who occasionally speak and sing in Spanish.

The touring production of that revival at the Colonial Theatre (through July 9) gets the Bernstein and Robbins contributions to “West Side Story” just about perfect. The singing and orchestral playing couldn’t be better. The rest of it, unfortunately, is far from heaven.

Kyle Harris as Tony is particularly weak and there isn’t a whole lot of charisma in Ali Ewoldt’s performance as Maria, either. If Laurents had really wanted to toughen the story up he should have started with his Romeo and Juliet stand-ins, because on the nerd-meter, they’re off the charts, particularly in this production. In fact, they really drive home the point that if Maria hadn’t sent Tony out to break up the fistfight at the rumble, everything would have been fine.

And the Spanish lyrics are really counterproductive, particularly when the lyrics you’re putting into Spanish are those of master lyricist Sondheim. It smacks of politically correct canoodling and they only serve to take you out of the moment.

'Guys And Dolls'

Meanwhile, the summer season in the Berkshires is under way with another terrific musical production by the Barrington Stage Company, whose revivals are often better than their Broadway counterparts — witness Julianne Boyd’s “West Side Story” of a couple of years ago. This season Boyd, the artistic director, turns the reins over to John Rando, most famous for his staging of “Urinetown.”

And Rando doesn’t miss a beat with “Guys and Dolls” (through July 16), Frank Loesser’s delightful adaptation of a Damon Runyon story about gamblers and missionaries. Everything that’s wrong with Boston’s “Story” is right with “Guys and Dolls” — great singing and tons of personality, starting with the sensational Morgan James as Sarah Brown, the beautiful missionary being wooed by Sky Masterson.

The story is lighter than air, but these fine performers under Rando’s direction really make Nathan Detroit, Miss Adelaide, Nicely-Nicely and all the rest come to life. Barrington Stage used to bring its productions to Foxborough after the Berkshires. I wish some local producer would get on the ball.

This program aired on July 4, 2011.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.

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