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A new take on 'West Side Story'
Bilingual production emphasizes the discord between Sharks and Jets


When "West Side Story" launches its national tour at the Fisher Theatre on Thursday, the Detroit audience might be surprised to find the show's Puerto Rican characters often speaking and singing in Spanish.

The bilingual revival of "West Side," currently on Broadway, was the brainchild of 91-year-old director Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the landmark 1957 musical, which was inspired by Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." It finds two star-crossed lovers, Puerto Rican immigrant Maria and American-born Tony, falling in love, despite their feuding families and friends. Their love story plays against a battleground where the Puerto Rican Sharks fight Tony's former gang, the Jets, for turf and respect.

David Saint, director of the touring production of the revival, says authenticity was the main reason for adding Spanish to the show. "By letting (the Sharks) speak in their own language, it brings across even more strongly the play's ideas on tribalism," he says. "Do we hang onto our Puerto Rican culture or be completely assimilated here?"

Saint, who had a hand in the Broadway version of the revival, has been in town since last weekend to work with costumers, the tech crew and his cast of young actors. He says incorporating Spanish into the beloved Stephen Sondheim-Leonard Bernstein score posed some challenges.

"It was an interesting process -- trying to retain the internal rhyme, that music of the language, the scansion that Stephen is famous for."

When the current revival was in previews in Washington, D.C., in late 2008 and early 2009, printed subtitles (the kind used regularly during opera performances) appeared above the stage. And though reviews were mostly positive when the show opened later on Broadway, producers opted to curb their use of Spanish a few months into the run. The purity of Laurents' concept, Saint says, had to be sacrificed for basic audience understanding.

"Our assumption was that everyone knew the story, or at the very least they could get the essence of it through the emotion of the scene."

Saint says language isn't the only thing that's different about this "West Side Story."

"When Arthur and Stephen went into it, they wanted to take out anything that even had a whiff of dating" the show, he says. A case in point is the "Gee, Officer Krupke" number. In the popular 1961 film version of "West Side Story," it was moved to an early point in the action, mostly for comic effect. In the original stage version, it takes place after the death of gang leader Riff.

Put back where it belongs, Saint sees the number as a chilling moment when Jets members have just lost their best friend. "It's still funny, sure, but darkly funny."

Though mostly South American actors were hired to play the Sharks in the Broadway revival, there was less insistence on using Spanish-speaking performers in the touring version.

Ali Ewoldt, who is cast as Maria in the road version, had played the part previously on an international tour. She knew little Spanish when she was hired for the current tour, but has since learned the required phrasing through a vocal coach.

She says she was hired with the approval of Laurents, who was a familiar face at the New York run-throughs. Once, while rehearsing a scene between Maria and her more experienced cousin Anita, Laurents took Ewoldt aside. "He asked me to think about Maria, and what she is really revealing about herself at that moment," the actress recalls.

For Ewoldt, the Spanish-language elements that remain are key to its central themes.

"The animosity between the Jets and Sharks has always been there," she says. "But now the language split tears them even further apart. It really adds to the power and meaning of the play."

Birmingham native stars in 'West Side Story' opening at Fisher Theatre

For Journal Register Newspapers

He already describes it as the opportunity of a lifetime. That he gets a home opener makes it that much better.

When “West Side Story” launches its national tour Sept. 30 at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre, Birmingham native Nathan Keen will get the chance to visit home before hitting the road again.

“I’ve always loved ‘West Side Story.’ It’s always been one of my favorite shows,” Keen, who will be playing the role of gang member Big Deal, said. He’s unsure why the tour is launching in his hometown, but he said he “won’t complain.”

Based off the original 1957 Broadway production that focuses on two rival gangs — the Jets and the Sharks, each representing a different ethnicity — this national tour is directed by two-time Tony Award-winning librettist Arthur Laurents with restaged choreography from Tony Award nominee Joey McKneely.

Written by Laurents and Tony and Grammy award winners Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story” won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.

“This is not your typical ‘West Side Story,’ ” Keen said. “It’s not the ‘West Side Story’ people are going to remember, but it has the potential to open audience members’ eyes to so much.”

Keen said what sets the characters in “West Side Story” apart from those in other productions is how “real” they are.

“They’re very much grounded in reality (but) they’re darker, they’re grittier, they’re meaner,” per Laurents’ directions, Keen said.

Keen, 22, said the chance to play Big Deal is, well, a big deal.

“A lot of the show’s (professional actors) are the happy musical comedy — big flashy costumes, grins, and big singing and dancing,” he said. “What makes this one different is just how great and real we’re making this production. And for me, it’s one of the most physically and emotionally taxing roles I’ve ever had to deal with.”

Big Deal is a member of the Jets who’s looking to gain notoriety with gang leaders Tony and Riff. Keen said he’s bringing an element of darkness to his role, with a comedic twist.

“He relishes the darkness, he relishes the violence,” Keen said. “He is not a happy-go-lucky person. None of (the Jets) are. He just happens to find a lot of things funny in a very twisted kind of way.”

Growing up with parents who are both musicians, Keen has been surrounded by music, theater and dance his whole life.

He was born in Ann Arbor, but moved to Beverly Hills in the early ’90s. He moved again in 1998 to Birmingham, where he’s lived ever since. But eight-hour daily rehearsals in New York have kept him busy on the road so when he found out they were holding auditions for “West Side Story,” Keen was on board.

Though he’s never performed at Fisher Theatre, he said he’s seen Broadway shows there before and is excited the location was picked.

“I think it’s very well-suited to our show; I think we’ll do well there,” Keen said.

He made his Broadway debut in “Beauty and the Beast” when he was 7 years old, and went on to pursue a career in theater, earning his bachelor’s degree in theater with a concentration in dance from Otterbein College. He also performed in national tours of “Les Miserables” and “Ragtime.”


“West Side Story” will be performed Sept. 30-Oct. 16 at Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd. in Detroit. Tickets are $39-$89 (includes parking and facility fees) and can be purchased at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 800-982-2787, or online at or


© 2010, a Journal Register Property
Tags: 2010 national tour, nathan keen, theatre

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