WEST SIDE STORY. A musical with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins; book codirected by Gerald Freedman; scenery by Oliver Smith; costumes by Irene Sharaff; lighting by Jean Rosenthal; co-choreographer, Peter Gennaro; musical direction by John Demain and Donald Jennings; orchestrations by Leonard Bernstein with Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal.

With Jossie de Guzman, Ken Marshall, Debbie Allen, Hector Jaime Mercado, Ray Contreras, James J. Mellon, Sammy Smith, Jake Turner and James Harper.

At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Feb. 3.

The original "West Side Story" made audiences cry. The "West Side Story" that opened at the Kennedy Center last night will make audiences remember.

Rumbles, fire escapes, Jets, Sharks, switchblades -- they call back an exciting and portentous moment in the history of both the nation and its theater. And if the show that contained these ingredients no longer shakes the soul -- if it has us sitting in the back of our seats rather than on the edge of them, that is partly due to factors beyond the company's control.

"West Side Story" was always a hodgepodge of the sublime (numbers like "Tonight" and "The Jet Song") and the slightly ridiculous (the dream ballet, "Somewhere," with Puerto Ricans and Anglos weaving across the stage against a heavenly backdrop). It was the product of a starry-eyed col- laboration of extraordinarily talented people who knew much less about slums and gangs and street life than they thought they did. (Of course, Shakespeare's Italy was a fairly fanciful place, too, but he had the excuse that it was farther away.)

Apart from these intrinsic difficulties, there are problems on the Opera House stage for which the performers can be hell squarely accountable -- above all, a generally pale and indistrict flavor to most of the acting. But an ensemble show, in which the actors, singers and dancers are the same people, inevitably stretches versatility thin; and on the musical fronts the cast is impressive.

What's more, everyone connected with this production seems to have held true to the course of trying to recreate the "West Side Story" of 1957, the musical that gave us an optimistic shove into the '60s, full of urban problems, racial clashes and babies booming toward adulthood. Those who love the American musical theater may lament the present dominance of revivals over new work, but they should be grateful for an increasing tendency to do the old honestly and faithfully.

As Tony and Maria (the parts originated by Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence), Ken Marshall and Jossie deGuzman are simple and straightforward and not very compelling as they deliver Arthur Laurents' dialogue. But give them a whiff of Leonard Bernstein's music and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics and they come alive. DeGuzman, who played the daughter in "Carmelina" last spring, is the standout singer in the company, and far more credible as a Puerto Rician than Lawrence ever was.

As Anita, Debbie Allen has only one strong moment, but it is a dilly. It starts with the opening lines of "America," and builds, with her singing and dancing -- up until the point when the words, coming from an accented chorus of immigrant ladies, turn virtually incomprehensible. Here and elsewhere in this minimally miked production, there seem to be problems of balance between cast and orchestra. Whatever the cause, a patter song like "America" is a particularly poor moment for lyrics to grow muddy.

In general, the big ensemble numbers are high points, performed with vigor and precision. The reprise of "Tonight," with all the characters rocking in contradictory anticipation, is a stunning number that ties the show and the story together. The rumble, for which occasion choreographer Jerome Robbins had the sense to edge away from the balletic toward the realistic, is tense, involving, edge-of-your seat stuff.

Robbins' dances and the Bernstein-Sondheim songs are the most memorable and stirring things about "West Side Story," and what makes the show tick. Laurents' book, which follows the structure of "Romeo and Juliet" closely, while making no effort to approximate the imagery of Shakespeare's lines, is an intriguing rediscovery after all these years.

One of the few significant American playwrights who has written extensively for musicals, Laurents obviously tried to learn something about the kind of people who figured in his story, and the payoff is in the surprisingly strong dialogue, rich with class and period slang.

But in its spareness, the book is an easy target -- it is often thus with musicals, since the songwriters leave their librettists with the worst problems to solve and a minimum of time in which to solve them. The character of Tony scarcely exists, he has so little chance to expalin himself. In a more general sense, "West Side Story" never found a substitute for Shakespeare's fabulous poetry -- a way to make its soupy characters interesting.

And the ending remains unforgivable: Maria lives. The funeral procession that follows, with Jets and Sharks filing off stage together, might have been believable if there had been a double death to fuel their grief. Without that, it has about the same emotional force as Brotherhood Week.