West Side Story
Of love and loss
What: West Side Story
Where: Lincoln Theatre, Mount Vernon
WHEN: Feb. 8-23
Wednesday, February 6, 2019
Romeo and Juliet found and lost love—and their young lives—centuries before Tony and Maria became star-crossed soulmates in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, but audiences attending META Performing Arts’ upcoming production of West Side Story at the Lincoln Theatre can rest assured that the show’s director, Joe Bowen, knew what he was doing when he brought the adroit adaptation of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy to life.
One of the main reasons Bowen’s insights were intact is that he had previously helmed Romeo and Juliet: The Musical for META, so he knew what to look for when it came to telling the tragic tale to the masses.
The main difference in the two versions, he says, is the economy of language in West Side Story. In the Bard’s original narration, long and memorable speeches are the norm. But in the gangland battleground of Hell’s Kitchen, Tony (the founder of the Jets), Maria (the sister of the leader of rival gang the Sharks) and their friends and enemies communicate with far fewer words.
“The longest speech, if you can call it that, is only three or four sentences,” Bowen says.
The similarities, however, are many. Bowen reports that the book and lyrics of West Side Story written by Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim are original to Shakespeare’s story structure, and he found himself organizing the scenes in exactly the same way he did for Romeo and Juliet.
“It’s an advantage,” he says. “It feels like you’ve done your homework. I use material from the original show to help the actors work on the inner monologues of their characters. The songs and dances take the place of the soliloquies.”
Via memorable hits such as “Something’s Coming,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere,” and “America,” the Tony Award-winning play that first opened on Broadway in 1957 delves into a world of hate, violence and prejudice, while still managing to earn the distinction of being one of the greatest love stories ever told.
“Tony and Maria remind us all of the best of who we were, who we are, and who we hope to be,” Bowen says when asked why he thinks the characters continue to resonate with audiences. “Shakespeare and Laurents/Bernstein/Sondheim were all going after the same thing: They wanted to make a thumping-good story, first and last. They wanted to entertain. Every time you see these shows, it feels like you’re drawing up your chair close to a master storyteller.”
A talented crew and a cast comprised of students from four counties and as many as seven high schools will bring authenticity to West Side Story, as will a large and talented sub-cast of Hispanic performers, local college talent and a few veteran performers taking on the adult roles.
“They all grasped the importance of this material and have pitched themselves into it with hearts and souls,” Bowen says. “It’s been so rewarding to watch. They play the worst of enemies onstage, and have become the best of friends off. I bet we could start production on a new Romeo and Juliet with these guys right after closing and make a darn good run of it.”
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