Notes on a Rehearsal of West Side Story
The Lexington Theatre Company
As observed by Kevin Lane Dearinger
As an art and as a profession, the Theatre depends on relationships. Audience and actor. Actor and director. Dancer and choreographer. Actor and Actor. Cast and designers. Staff and Crew. Producers and Just-About-Everybody. Relationships are, in fact, central to the mission of The Lexington Theatre Company. Producers Jeromy and Lyndy Franklin Smith are artists and teachers. They treat their audiences with respect, and generously foster the talents of their actors and staff; they are family-builders, encouraging collaborations that can generate theatrical performances on a high artistic level.
Their production of West Side Story has been in rehearsals for just over a week, with only a few days to go before opening night at the Lexington Opera House. On Monday, the cast will take their next step, singing with the twenty-nine piece orchestra for the first time, but today, dressed in rehearsal clothes and performing without scenery, moving about on a floor lined with diagrams, they will present their work-in-progress to the costume staff, the lighting and sound designers, and representatives of the stage crew. A number of musicians have also come to the rehearsal, knowing that during public performances, they won’t be able to watch the stage for any length of time. This is their chance. They, too, are part of the collaboration that is West Side Story.
Prior to the run-through, the cast gathers around director Mark Madama. Unflappable, he reminds his energized actors to tighten their dialogue, to be aware of the action around them, and, most importantly, to listen to each other. Relationships matter.
Choreographer Mark Esposito leads a quick review of the “Rumble;” the fight moves are precise but could be dangerous. Trust and skill must work together. When the review is over, the “fallen” get a hand-up from their colleagues. One of the dancers holds an ice pack to a fresh bruise.
The run-through begins. From the downbeat, the actors playing the Jets and the Sharks are “on,” determined to please. Their hard work has earned them a good measure of pride, but they work even harder now, disappearing into their characters. The opening moves are balletic, but they turn edgy and rancid with aggrieved male aggression. West Side Story is one of the stage landmarks that transformed musical comedy into musical theatre.
The defensive edge, Jets versus Sharks, remains for the Mambo competition in the “Dance at the Gym.” The paired couples define themselves by who they are, and with scornful looks, left and right, who they are not. Then, Tony (Colton Ryan) tenderly touches Maria’s hand for the first time with a shy thrill. In a heart-stopping moment, Maria (Evy Ortiz) looks up and smiles at him, trusting both “Tony” and the actor playing him. Ortiz has played her role many times, including on an extended national tour, but as she rehearses with Ryan, she trembles with all of Maria’s innocence and trust, as if every moment is new. Their shared trust propels “Maria,” Ryan’s next solo, into exquisite discovery, and when they sing, “Tonight,” their first duet, they find and celebrate all the exuberance of first love and sudden passion. The relationship of Tony and Maria must drive the narrative; it will define and determine the devastating ending of the play.
Maria’s connection with her more-worldly friend Anita (Michelle Alves) is immediately palpable, as is the affection of Maria’s brother Bernardo (Sean Ewing) for his little sister. Like Ortiz, Alves and Ewing have extensive experience with West Side Story, but here in rehearsal, they remain alert to every nuance, re-forging their relationships and deepening their performances. Bernardo, the tough gang leader, is tender with Maria, passionate with Anita, and touchingly vulnerable when not forced to outstare prejudice with a hardened street-face. Alves brings conviction, wit, and precision to her performance of Anita, and when she catches and holds a bravura note in “America,” the Sharks and Jets, sitting at the side, break into united cheers. They won’t be able to do that in a performance, but now they are eager to share their approval.
The playful moments in the story, however, give way to the tragic, and as the scenes build in tension, the actors grow surer, more enmeshed to the harsh reality they have worked to create. The conflict between immigrants and sons of immigrants on the streets of New York is deadly. In response, the invited audience sits entirely still, almost unable to breathe. Actors, coming off the stage, also sit quietly, recovering and reflecting, before going on to what must come. There is a strong sense throughout the rehearsal studio that something extraordinary is happening.
And it is.
As the company of West Side Story moves toward their opening night, their creative hearts are have begun to beat in sympathetic syncopation. They are becoming a part of the history of West Side Story, reaching back to acknowledge the legendary performances of the original cast and all the actors who have told this story since 1957. They are also creating a deeply felt, deeply human story for this time and for this place. In an America that continues to debate issues of immigration, West Side Story still stings, still provokes, still stirs the mind and moves the heart.
The Lexington Theatre Company will present West Side Story, July 11–14, and, as their second summer production, Disney’s Newsies, August 1–4. Tickets are available at LexingtonTheatreCompany.org or by calling 859–233–3535.