By Martin Brady
Live theater's collaborative nature has always set it apart from the solo arts. Painters, instrumentalists, poets — they can all create on their own. But theater requires dozens of people, each making critical contributions in very different disciplines. Somehow the ringmaster — the director — must pull the circus together into a cohesive whole.
Such is the challenge for Studio Tenn artistic director Matt Logan, whose company presents its long-awaited production of West Side Story this weekend in three performances at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Few shows demand as much from artists in the way of singing, acting and especially dancing, as this does, its spirit driven by Leonard Bernstein's timeless music, with its urban-jungle rhythms and soaring, melancholic melodies bringing to life the tragic tale of New York City gang violence.
"This is my first time directing the show," says Logan, who says a long-ago Tennessee Repertory Theatre mounting of West Side Story was "one of the most powerful things I had seen at that point in my life." (To be clear, Logan is not talking about the Rep's 2001 production, which was performed in TPAC's Jackson Hall and featured the Nashville Symphony, conducted by none other than the late Kenneth Schermerhorn.)
"I later worked on the show at Pepperdine University," says Logan. "I also saw the 2009 New York revival, and I'm a fan of the film."
Including Studio Tenn's productions of Les Miserables and The Wizard of Oz, West Side Story marks Logan's sixth time directing at the Schermerhorn, which of course is a symphony hall and not a conventional proscenium theater. "I understand the building," says Logan. "It's about reminding actors that the audience is farther away, and you have to be bigger and bolder."
Logan's casting chores included holding auditions locally and in New York, though the critical role of Puerto Rican spitfire Anita may have already been predetermined.
"I know Matt from years back in Los Angeles," says a smiling Jennifer Rias, currently on hiatus from the Broadway cast of Aladdin. "We moved to New York together in 2002. I hope when he was doing his casting I was somewhere in the back of his brain."
Rias has performed in WSS four times total, playing Anita three times, including an extended run at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada.
"Coming into this role now, it feels completely different to me," she says. "It's the best role ever created, and I feel like I've matured a lot since the last time."
The triple-threat Rias can do it all, but "dancing is what fuels me, and dancing to this music is the ultimate. I'm in touch with this character. Anita's through-line is amazing, and you have to keep that alive physically and emotionally.
"So I am a dancer first, but I'm going to sing my butt off, and deliver the story that the audience deserves."
Other New York-based actors in the show include Greg Maheu (as Tony), who has performed with Studio Tenn previously; Mike Cannon (Riff), Rias' castmate in Aladdin and an understudy in the Broadway revival of WSS; Tripp Hampton; PJ Palmer and Bridget Riley.
As for the show's daunting legacy as a dance piece, choreographer Emily Tello Speck has two words: "Really overwhelming." Together with Caleb Marshall, who is playing the role of Bernardo, Speck spent weeks transcribing the moves from various video sources in search of a happy stylistic medium that incorporates original choreographer Jerome Robbins' iconic ideas with some of Logan's conceptual notions regarding the ballet sequence and the infamous rumble.
"Almost all of it will be familiar," says Speck, "and there are moments in the show where the audience will know those steps because they've seen them a million times."
Still, you have to have the dance talent to pull off all that frenetic physical beauty. Besides the New York imports in the cast, Speck has drawn upon some valuable locally based talent, including Lauri Gregoire, Mallory Gleason Mundy and the Nashville Ballet's Mollie Sansone.
Not to be overlooked among all those key casting decisions is Logan's Maria, recent Belmont University grad Lissa deGuzman. "Lissa was with us in Fiddler on the Roof and in Oz," says Logan. "This is a big step for her, but she really brought a genuineness and an age-appropriateness to the role. She's so talented that she was up for the challenge, and I am really proud of her."
The remainder of the cast of 27 features other energetic regional performers and college kids, including DeVon Buchanan and Arik Vega, as well as veteran character actors Ronnie Meek, Corey Caldwell and Nat McIntyre. And — not that anyone would ever miss them onstage — there is a community chorus of approximately 100 singers to enhance the texture of the gorgeous score. The 18-piece onstage orchestra is under the direction of Stephen Kummer.
As for the show's overall visual feel, Logan says, "We are not taking it out of the period, but we are not fixing it only in the period either. A revival like this doesn't need a heavy concept. You just want to play it truthfully, especially since we are dealing with subjects — prejudice and racism and how love survives — that are as important now as they were in the 1950s."