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A new take on 'West Side Story'


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

The 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.

Tour cities and dates

National tour cast

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 surtitles (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."

'West Side Story' revival has a Spanish accent

Special to The Detroit News

'West Side Story," reborn to bilingual authenticity, comes to town when a yearlong national tour kicks off at the Fisher Theatre.

The touring show is a version of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical recently revived on Broadway. Some songs and dialogue for the Puerto Rican characters are translated into Spanish.

David Saint, director of the tour production, says this bilingual treatment is the new definitive "West Side Story," meaning that all future productions by major presenters will have to use the mix of English and Spanish.

"It seems more authentic, and no more than 15 or 20 percent of the show is in Spanish," Saint says. "So many people I know who don't speak a word of Spanish have told me they had no problem with it (on Broadway)."

What's more, he says, Sondheim enthusiastically embraced the inclusion of Spanish and worked closely with Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the musical "In the Heights," to fashion Spanish lyrics for the Puerto Rican gang called Sharks, territorial enemies of the white Jets on New York City's west side.

"Steve's concern wasn't just meaning, but musicality and rhyme scheme, including internal rhyme," Saint says. "It was very moving (at the Broadway revival) to see Latino mothers bringing their kids, happy about the new authenticity."

But getting the Spanish exactly right on stage meant honing Puerto Rican dialect. Spanish-speaking cast members from Peru, the Dominican Republic and Bolivia worked with a coach to achieve a uniform sound.

The show's message, that love itself can be destroyed by bigotry and racism, transcends both language and time, the director says, and remains as potent today as it was when "West Side Story" first appeared in 1957.

In the musical, an updating of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," Maria, a Puerto Rican girl, falls in love with Tony, a Polish-American boy with a peaceful disposition. He dreams of a life for them together somewhere. She keeps their love a secret from her brother Bernardo, who believes strictly in the code of native country and tradition.

But when Bernardo kills Tony's pal Riff in a gang fight, Tony takes Bernardo's life in an instant reprisal. Killing for killing sets the stage for the play's tragic conclusion.

"There is still so much prejudice in the world," Saint says. "At the end of the play, Maria (cradling Tony in her arms) says, 'We all killed him.' Today, at least, an awareness of racism has become more a part of the national consciousness."

As much as "West Side Story" is played out in words and music -- in songs like "America," "Somewhere" and "Maria" -- it is no less essentially a dance drama.

Joe Simeone, who portrays Riff, points to "the passion behind the movement. Nothing happens in the dancing without motivation.

"From the dancer's perspective, it's a joy," says Simeone, 28, a graduate of the Juilliard School's dance program who has performed with Merce Cunningham and the American Ballet Theatre. "Everyone in the cast has such a love for this material. I don't think there's a word or a movement wasted.

"It's our life for the next year, and we've infused it with our lives."

Lawrence B. Johnson is a cultural writer and critic.">
Tags: 2010 national tour, theatre
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