Seacoast Rep Presents WEST SIDE STORY
by BWW News Desk
West Side Story, the 1950's musical of forbidden love amid rival New York youth gangs, will be staged with a 21st century perspective as the Seacoast Repertory Theatre moves into its summer season.
"My question for the audience is, have we indeed not learned from our past?," said director Bryan Knowlton, a Portsmouth native and Seacoast Rep veteran who directs and choreographs regional theater productions across the United States.
West Side Story opens June 13. And Knowlton, whose first theater experience 30 years ago was watching the Seacoast Rep Stage West Side Story, has been well-placed to observe how changing times can influence the production.
"Our portrayal of the story is much more sensitive to the racial divide that we have right now," he said. His young, diverse, cast, recruited from New York and New England, is "hyper-aware" of modern racial complexities and primed to portray them on stage.
The interpretation of the Romeo-and-Juliet story broke new ground when West Side Story debuted in 1957. The Latin- and jazz-influenced score by Leonard Bernstein, choreography by Jerome Robbins and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim all reflected the swirling ethnicity and rebellious energy of American urban youth.
For West Side Story's early audiences, youth gangs were in the news and a focus of national attention. The story was seen as contrasting the white background of the Jets and the Puerto Rican immigrant heritage of the Sharks.
Knowlton points out that the Jets, however, represented ethic groups not far removed from being considered "the other" in the United States.
"People forget that the Jets are not 'white;' they are Italian and Polish and Irish. It's not too long before the Puerto Ricans got there to claim their turf that the Irish and the Italians and the Polish were doing exactly the same thing. They were trying to get a piece of the pie," he said.
The ethnic mix of characters has created casting challenges for modern theaters, especially in areas such as New Hampshire with minimal population diversity. Protests against casting white actors to portray characters of color have targeted productions of West Side Story, The King and I and other popular theater standards. Furthermore, anti-discrimination laws bar employers, including theaters, from asking about an applicant's background.
But Knowlton is pleased with his cast, whose 24 members have backgrounds including Colombia, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Italy and Ireland. "They're a full version of a big melting pot of people from all over the world," he said.
The Seacoast Rep's production of West Side Story stays true to the original story, Knowlton said. But he has contemporized it, including with untraditional supernatural elements that highlight the enduring consequences of the characters' actions. He has also created his own choreography, to emphasize "less ballet, more aggression" while paying "homage" to Robbins' innovative original work.
The set is designed by the Seacoast Rep's in-house duo The Mad Men of Oopsy Daisy Inc! It was inspired by a 1950s abstract expressionist painting and supports a theme that "not everything is black and white," Knowlton said.
Knowlton's previous directing experience at the Seacoast Rep included The Hunchback of Notre Dame last year, and Hair in 2014. From his professional base in New York and home in London, Knowlton has a busy schedule of U.S. regional theater bookings.
"What I love about the Rep is that as a director they provide me a very open canvas, so I get to go in and paint with any color I'd like," he said. "My aesthetic as a director is to take something old and make it new, and they really encourage that and provide me with that opportunity."
He said he hopes audiences reflect on the Seacoast Rep's production. "Trying to kill off an entire race, or using separate bathrooms or building walls, and abuse of power; it's not ended well," he said.
"At the heart of this story are fresh eyes. They are both seeing beyond their differences, allowing their love for one another to be their truth. And this very young fine company will hopefully give the opportunity to continue the dialog on how we might go about putting an end to shutting out one another based on our different packaging. Because in the end, the contents of our insides are all the same."
West Side Story runs June 14-July 20. Show times are Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm with extra shows added as we can. There is no show on Thursday, July 4. Extra evening shows will be at 7:30 on Sunday, June 30 and Wednesday July 17. July Tickets are available through the Seacoast Rep box office at 603-433-4472, or online at www.seacoastrep.org/tickets. For student discounts, call the box office.
West Side Story is Proudly Sponsored by Sue and Bob Thoresen and Bangor Savings Bank. The Seacoast Repertory Theatre's 2019 season is sponsored in part by Bondgarden Farms, Martingale Wharf, MacEdge, the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel and Key Heating and Air Conditioning.
The Seacoast Repertory Theatre is a 501(c)3 non-profit theatre committed to providing a variety of programming for the community. The Rep presents professional programming through its Mainstage, alternative programming through its Red Light Series and also offers a variety of programs for youth and seniors. For more information, or to schedule an interview, please call Director of Marketing Brian Kelly at 603-785-2782 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. For artistic questions please contact Interim Artistic Director Jamie Bradley at 603-498-8202 or at email@example.com.