By Laura Spencer
With its new production of West Side Story, Spinning Tree Theatre takes an intimate approach to a large classic musical.
It’s thought to be the first in Kansas City with an all-local, all-professional cast. And while maintaining the original choreography, two veteran cast members are putting their own stamp on it.
It’s day three of rehearsals in a large studio on the first floor of the performing arts center on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus. Spinning Tree Theatre’s music director Gary Green gathers some of the cast members around a polished black piano to sing a medley.
West Side Story is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but it’s set in the mid-1950s in New York City. There are two rival street gangs: the Jets, who are New York-born, and the Sharks, transplants from Puerto Rico — and two young lovers from opposing sides: Tony and Maria.
"I’ve been in love with West Side Story since I was a very little girl," says Megan Herrera, who plays Maria, "and my grandma would always show the movie."
But before West Side Story was turned into the 1961 movie, with Natalie Wood as Maria, it got its start as a Broadway musical with a book by Arthur Laurents, a score by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
The co-founders of Spinning Tree Theatre, Michael Grayman and Andrew Parkhurst, met during a European tour of West Side Story nearly 20 years ago. If you combine their experiences, they've performed in nine professional productions, including the 40th anniversary Broadway tour.
"I consider West Side Story the quintessential perfect musical," says Grayman.
Grayman says it was important for them to re-create all the elements – down to director Jerome Robbins' choreography.
"That’s what’s so dynamic about this piece – the story is being told through dance, through the song, and it’s almost seamless," he says.
"It’s definitely balletic," Parkhurst says of Jerome Robbins' style. "It’s ballet-based for sure, but being motivated by character it can be at times very angular."
Parkhurst says in the original production, to create division and heighten the conflict between the actors, Robbins reportedly separated the Jets and the Sharks in and out of rehearsals.
"He was certainly known for being really provocative," Parkhurst says.
West Side Story can be stressful, says Parkhurst, and it takes a lot out of an actor — physically and psychologically, especially as tension between the two sides builds.
Some of the scenes, such as ones that escalate with racial slurs and violent threats, can be intense.
"Knowing that it can be a hard show to do, one of our primary goals is to keep the group as one cohesive unit, to make them understand that the drama need be on the stage only … the rest is acting," he says.
Jacob Aaron Cullum plays the role of Tony, and says many of the themes still resonate today.
"(It's) just as relevant then as it is now, for multiple reasons," says Cullum, "but definitely including the racial tension."
"We’ll live for the day when it’s not relevant," adds Megan Herrera. But she says, "You can always relate to love, and you can always relate to being the outsider."
Spinning Tree Theatre presents 'West Side Story' through September 5 at The Arts Asylum, 1000 E. 9th St. (9th & Harrison), Kansas City, Missouri, 816-569-5277.