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POWER PLAY: Love and domination revamp Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in ‘West Side Story’

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When “West Side Story” debuted in 1958 on Broadway, it mirrored headlines nationwide about the phenomenon of youth gang violence. Even 57 years later, its relevance hasn’t waned.

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Shakespeare created and inspired so many words in our English language that his numerous sonnetts, poems and plays are continually heralded today—451 years after his birth. Inspirations, homages and restagings of his vast catalog have popped up through centuries of new writers, playwrights and actors looking to perfect their craft. Perhaps one of the most well-known 20th century works to revamp Shakespeare’s popular and tragic love story, “Romeo and Juliet,” comes in the form of “West Side Story” (book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, libretto by Stephen Sondheim and co-written by Bernstein, choreography by Jerome Robbins).

804584_694915059157_1393574040_nSet in 1950’s Upper West Side NYC, the story revolves around two young, ethnically diverse street gangs, the Jets (Caucasians) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans), who are fighting over dominance of their neighborhood streets. The divide between the two groups deepens when an old Jets member, Tony, kills Sharks gang leader Bernardo, which incites a riotous manhunt of revenge. However, life gets more complicated when Tony and Maria, Bernardo’s sister, fall in love and want to escape to the countryside to marry.

The story unravels much like Shakespeare’s trope on forbidden love, with clear themes of familial alienation, heartbreak and death. When “West Side Story” debuted in 1958 on Broadway, it mirrored headlines nationwide about the phenomenon of youth gang violence. Even 57 years later, its relevance hasn’t waned; gang violence still makes front-page news. More so, “West Side Story” speaks to social issues of race and class that continue to plague and separate humans rather than unify and strengthen them.

Directed by Kevin Lee-y Green, Techmoja Dance and Theatre Company will open “West Side Story” for one weekend only at Thalian Hall. The show will be a fundraiser for the Donna Joyner Green scholarship for the arts. The director’s mother, who passed in 2014, loved her son’s 2008 version of “West Side Story,” so he decided to reprise it with the same people.

“They were part of the reason she liked it so much,” Green tells, “and they understand the material. They bring an honesty to the piece that they had to work hard for.”

Raleigh resident Courtney Bowden Slocum will be playing Maria. That Maria is young, naive, passionate, and silly adds to Slocum’s love of showing her growth throughout the two-hour show. Though encompassing a lot of roles into one, and carrying it with a Puerto Rican accent is challenging enough, Slocum is driven and challenged by the vocal reach of Maria.

“It is one of few female roles where the songs are sung in ‘classical style,’ I guess you would say,” Slocum tells. “It is definitely for a high soprano voice and I love that. I minored in classical voice/opera in both college and graduate school, so it is awesome that I get to use my training for this role.”

Real-life lessons aren’t lost on the actress either. Playing Maria has taught her that living and loving in the moment becomes optimal in not taking life for granted. “I’m reminded of the innocence of young love and first love,” she adds. “It brings back great memories.”

Maria’s lover, Tony, will be played by Tyler Simmons. Simmons has focused on finding different approaches to the role. He has maximized his switch from tough-skinned fighter to vulnerable lover. He also has connected to Tony’s impulsivity most this go round and tapping into the danger it can lead to at times.

“Tony makes decisions based off emotion and is so in love that he doesn’t have much time to think things through,” Simmons explains. “At the same time, Tony reinforces the idea that just because something isn’t right to the public eye doesn’t mean it’s wrong. He pushes social boundaries of the day and fights for what he believes in.”

The show—and its numerous revivals—has been lauded with multiple Theatre World awards and Tonys, including best theatre musical album. Leading the orchestra for its local run will be Chiaki Ito. Ito has enlisted the help of Paige Zalman, John Crowley, Casey Black, Sheila Hardison, Faith Grant, and Josh Grant to help with the genre-bending score, which includes sounds of Latin rhythms, jazz and classical arrangements.

“The most challenging part of ‘West Side’ is to play a score written for many instruments and play it with eight or so people,” Ito tells.

However, Green is especially happy with its direction thus far, especially in hearing “A Boy Like That,” performed by Slocum as Maria and Tempest Peaches as Anita. “The difference in the way Anita and Maria’s voicing are written gives me chills each time they sing together,” he says.

“Combining a love story with a conflicted plot makes each scene difficult to adapt to,” Peaches explains. “It’s tough but extremely rewarding.”

Her Anita (girlfriend to Bernardo and best friend to Maria) contains sass and sultry expectations of the role. Yet Peaches focuses on showcasing her nurturing side.

“She cares a lot for Bernardo and Maria and is really concerned with their well-being,” she says. “But she is outspoken. When she has something on her mind, she lets it be known. I’m not that way at all, but I wish I could be.”

Green is sticking to the original choreography hailed by Jerome Robbins. Every movement becomes the show’s “language,” and highlights the script’s words while propelling the plot. “It’s a choreographer’s dream,” Green notes.

Dallas Lafon will direct lighting, while Ty Parker will set design, and Jim and Alec Wenning are constructing it. Terrill Williams is doing costuming.

“He is using color palates to differentiate the gangs,” Green says. “We are using costumes based on the original designs.”

West Side Story
Oct. 30-31, 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 1, 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall
310 Chestnut St. • (910) 632-2285
Tickets: $23-$28

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