Backstage with 'West Side Story'

07/14/05 12:00AM By Betty Smith-Mastaler
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(Host) Leonard Bernstein's timeless classic West Side Story will be presented by Grace Congregational Church at the historic Paramount Theatre in Rutland tonight through Saturday.

Directed by Rip Jackson and choreographed by Mitch Rosengarten, this fully staged production includes a twenty-six-piece orchestra.

VPR's Betty Smith went Backstage during the final days of rehearsal.

(Smith) The music is complex and it reflects a complicated story.It's all about harmony, dissonance and tension. Harmony between two lovers. The clash between the two cultures.

And there's plenty of tension in the familiar rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks on the New York streets of the 1950's.

Early in Act I, young Puerto Rican women sing about their new home, and compare it to their old one, in a song full of hot, steamy Latin rhythms.

(Women) "Puerto Rico, you lovely island ."

(Smith) In contrast, the Jets' signature music conveys a potentially explosive energy and captures the essence of urban cool.

(Muted trumpet, finger snaps,)

(Jet) "Easy Action easy"

( percussion)

(Jet) "Pow"


(Smith) West Side Story is also all about taking risks. Risking all for love for a new life.

Director Rip Jackson says West Side Story is also full of musical risks.

(Jackson) "It's brilliant the way it's put together. But every measure is weird. There's weird meter, lots of dissonances and the melodies may seem singable in some ways but their actually quite challenging with lots of twists and turns. And it's very complex."

(Smith) Courtney Gandee has had to work hard to achieve the emotional range called for in acting the part of Maria.

(Gandee) "I have done a lot of opera but as far as, you know, shows and really musical acting, this is my first shot at it. So, I've always been a quick study of learning music and parts and things, but learning lines and learning how to project emotion has been very challenging for me."

(Smith) Brian Narkewicz has had a similar experience preparing for the part of Tony.

(Narkewicz) "The biggest challenge for me as Tony is kind of letting go of all the cares of the day and really being Tony because there's so much there in the character and he has so much to show and emote."

(Smith) In spite of the difficulties inherent in mounting a production like West Side Story, director Jackson says that the play has a message that everyone still needs to hear.

(Jackson) "It was created in the late '50's in an era when there was a lot of ethnic gang warfare between like Puerto Ricans and Italians and the Polish and also Catholics and Protestants. In our day we have a lot of prejudice going on all over the world, causing ethnic cleansing, genocide in Africa, homophobia in America. I love Vermont but I think we live in this kind of false comfort, feeling like we have no, like, prejudices, and that as a state we're so much more enlightened about being sensitive to different classes of people. But I think actually there's a lot of challenges in our own state still."

(Smith) Near the end of Act I, all the clashing, competing elements in West Side Story achieve a moment of rare unity in a great fugue, sung by nearly the entire cast of fifty plus.

(Cast) "Today the minutes seem like hours..."

(Applause)


(Smith) For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Betty Smith.

Note: West Side Story opens at the Paramount Theater in Rutland tonight and runs through Saturday. For tickets and more information, call the Paramount Box Office at (802) 775-0903.
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