By Jay Handelman , Herald-Tribune
Performing in “West Side Story” can’t be easy, even for the best trained or most experienced singers and dancers.
Imagine what they must go through in auditions, just to get a chance to work so hard every night performing those intense and emotionally complex dance routines by Jerome Robbins. There’s the physical exertion of showing what you can do, and the emotional intensity of competing with people who want it just as badly.
I had a chance to witness part of the process during a callback audition for local non-Equity performers, which left me exhausted, fascinated, concerned and excited for what audiences will see when “West Side Story” opens the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s 2015-16 season in November.
About 20 young men and women, many of whom I recognized from various area shows, auditioned earlier and were asked to a callback with director and choreographer Joey McKneely.
I’ve been to a few auditions over the years, but this was quite a different experience, a sort of master class that McKneely used to help decide which, if any, of this group might fit into the cast.
McKneely clearly knows every detail about this show, having choreographed the most recent Broadway and London revivals and a few other productions. He knows which characters need better dancers, while others need stronger actors, or how one performer might double in different roles and exactly what is needed from each performer and role.
Some of those auditioning, I suspect, knew they didn’t have a chance to get into the show, except by sheer force of their personalities. For most, it was a chance to get some solid auditioning experience.
They got much more.
The group sang a bit for musical director Donald Chan, allowing him to assess their vocal abilities and range, before McKneely got them moving as potential Jets and Sharks.
It was quickly obvious that not everyone had any dance training, and by the end, McKneely advised a few to take ballet classes to get in shape for this show or others in the future.
They worked hard to get the basic moves down before McKneely started picking them apart and giving them character motivation.
A move involving two hands pushing in the air isn’t just a gesture, he said. It’s part of an attitude of anger and frustration, a sense of pushing someone away. Suddenly the move takes on a little more meaning each time it is repeated.
“Think like you’re a wolf, hungry,” he tells a couple of the guys at one point.
There is criticism, but the dancers shrug it off amid their own frustration as they miss a turn, or end up on the left knee instead of the right.
He likewise encourages the women to ratchet up their own attitudes, even as he encourages to display some sex appeal.
“How hateful can you be at somebody,” he asks. They respond with more determination and he teases the guys that the girls are “dancing harder than you.”
The women in “West Side” are really girls who act grown up, but they are still kids at heart. He wants to see that kind of attitude.
He tells one 16-year-old girl that he “can’t wait to see you in a year. But I want to see that year in the next five minutes. What kind of animal are you? I want a tiger and right now you’re a chipmunk.”
At times, I felt like I was observing variations of scenes from “A Chorus Line.” These dancers work hard to adjust and get their bodies to do things they’ve never done before, hoping to please McKneely.
Then the guys start reading lines, and McKneely has them rotating parts to see who might play which Jet in a scene at Doc’s soda shop. They go through the scene a few times, and it’s obvious that McKneely is excited about a few possibilities.
After several hours, McKneely sits at a table with producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards, literary manager Lauryn Sasso and Chan and pulls photos and résumés from the stack. He points to six potential cast members.
That doesn’t mean they’ll get a role, because Asolo Rep will still cast in New York for professionals, but the theater’s contract with Equity allows for using a number of non-Equity performers based on the size of each cast. Edwards has been using local, non-Equity performers in recent years throughout the season.