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‘West Side’ role a dream come true

By Adrian Gomez / Asst. Arts Editor

MaryJoanna Grisso believes there are no boundaries when it comes to love, which is why playing Maria in “West Side Story” is so special.

“I’m very similar to this character because she’s someone who believes in love and peace,” Grisso says during a phone interview from Las Vegas, Nev. “She sees past race and doesn’t see the fact that she can’t be in love with someone outside of her ethnicity. I live my life that way and it’s amazing.”

Aside from those similarities, getting cast as Maria in the play is a dream come true for Grisso. The daughter of a music teacher, Grisso’s childhood memories are chock-full of the musical.

“My mom always had the movie on and it was inspiring,” she says. “As a performer, I would look at that and aspire to one day be on stage and make an impact like so many other actresses have made over the years.”

The touring production from the West Side Story Company is coming to Popejoy Hall.

The musical tells the story of star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria as they struggle to rise above the hatred and intolerance that surrounds them.

The Bernstein and Sondheim score is considered to be one of Broadway’s finest and features such classics of the American musical theater as “Something’s Coming,” “Tonight,” “America,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere.”

“West Side Story” had a very successful run on Broadway, where it picked up six Tony Award nominations in 1957. The original production starred Larry Kert as Tony, Carol Lawrence as Maria and Chita Rivera as Anita.

It ran for 732 performances before launching national and international tours and a successful mounting at London’s Majesty Theatre in 1958.

The first revival of the musical opened on April 8, 1964 at New York City Center by the New York City Center Light Opera Company.

The production closed on May 3, 1964 after a limited engagement of 31 performances. It was also made into a movie in 1961 and picked up 10 Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture.

Grisso and a nearly 50-deep crew, are crisscrossing the country as part of a touring revival of the Broadway musical.

With such a strong history in American culture, one would think that tackling the role of Maria would be difficult. And Grisso admits that it has been challenging.

“This is my first national touring show and our schedule is very intense,” she explains. “We have about eight shows in a week and I’m not really used to that. I learned quickly that it’s important to keep my voice healthy and in top shape. That’s difficult to do because we’re on the road so much.”

Part of her regimen is to get plenty of vocal rest and do her vocal exercises before and after the show.

“It’s amazing because the role is so physically and emotionally draining and I didn’t expect that,” she says. “After each show, I’m totally wired for about two hours and then I go into complete shutdown mode. It’s weird, but when the body needs rest, it forces us into it.”

Grisso and crew began the tour in November and are at the halfway point of the eight-month-long tour.

“It’s been an amazing run for this tour,” she says. “The crowds have been great and inspiring.”

It’s been more than 50 years since the original production of the play and Grisso says there are many themes – such as racism and violence – that still exist today.

“I still look up into the stage lights every night and can’t believe I’m doing this show,” she says. “It’s so powerful and meant so much to me. I have to opportunity to break down some barriers playing Maria and that’s one of the most inspiring things I can do.”
Tags: 2012 non-equity national tour, maria, maryjoanna grisso
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