Springfield Little Theatre will open 2018 with the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical "West Side Story," Jan.19-Feb.4 at the Landers Theatre. Two idealistic young lovers find themselves caught between warring street gangs in mid-20th-century New York City: the “American” Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Tony, best friend to the leader of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, sister of the Sharks’ leader. We talked about this production with director and choreographer Lorianne Dunn, and singer-actress Genevieve Fulks, who plays the female lead Maria.
Asked if she finds it easier or more difficult to wear both hats, stage director and choreographer, on a show the size and complexity of “West Side Story,” Lorianne Dunn unhesitatingly declares, “I find it easier, because you have the through line (of the entire show). But you still surround yourself with a really great team. Jessica Palmer has come in as an acting coach on the show. I’ve also incorporated a couple of ‘dance captains’: Angie Black and Lysander Abadia [who also plays Bernardo]. So although I’m responsible for staging the production, I do have people around me to help with the work, and to help coach and guide.” And it’s definitely a show of both size and complexity, with a cast of 56 and an orchestra of about 15 players—who will be on-stage in this production, at the back of the stage but still a definite “presence,” says Dunn. “This is the 60th anniversary [of the original Broadway production of “West Side Story”], and the centennial of the composer, Leonard Bernstein. So the stars aligned to do it this season.” Dunn says Musical Director Susan Gravatt is excited to have a relatively large instrumental ensemble for this show.
This is Genevieve Fulks’s first time performing Maria, and she says she told Lorianne Dunn, “I feel this is the most difficult role I’ve had to play as an actress. Maria is interesting because she’s very young, innocent, in many ways naïve, very idealistic. In the second half of the show it’s very difficult—you really have to access this very raw, primal energy... accessing these emotions that aren’t pretty, that are often very ugly actually. You really just have to access some of the darkest parts of you as a person, and then portray those onstage. You have to be very vulnerable.”
But, she adds, “I know it may sound a little clichéd, but it really is a dream come true! Maria is such an iconic role. As a 13-year-old voice student many years ago, one of the first songs that I sang was ‘Somewhere’ from ‘West Side Story.’ And I grew up watching the movie with my friends. So to be able to sing this beautiful music, to be able to bring this character to life—she experiences the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, all in two and a half hours... it’s really just a dream come true.” And despite the admitted difficulties of accessing some of the darker feelings in the role, Fulks says she has felt consistently stronger, less inhibited, more in control of her range of emotions, at each rehearsal. “It’s a mental challenge for sure—but that’s why we love acting.”
Director Lorianne Dunn chimes in, “and she’s a dream come true,” indicating Fulks. “She’s beautiful in every way—her voice is amazing.” Dunn adds, sotto voce, “definitely better than the movie!”
Tony is played by tenor, and Drury University vocal music major, Tanner Johnson... and both Dunn and Fulks suggest his singing makes the girls in the show go all a-flutter. Dunn calls Johnson “just charming—all-American, I mean for real, he’s a baseball player—with this amazing gift. His vocal instrument is insane! When he sings everybody just holds their breath.”
Dunn asserts that classically-trained voices are essential for both Maria and Tony. “Often when you’re casting musical theater, you choose. It depends on the demands of the show. Oftentimes, you choose ‘character’ over vocal perfection; or it’ll be a more demanding dance show and you have to choose that over the other. But in these two parts you have to be in service to this incredible and difficult, demanding score.” For one thing, the time signatures are varied and quite complex—which is a challenge for both singers and dancers in the show. “That was fun, and meaty, to get into dissecting the score, to stage the big choreographic sequences.”
“West Side Story” is, for all intents and purposes, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” set in a racially-charged mid-20th century Manhattan. “So,” says Dunn, “instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, the two feuding families, you have the two warring youth street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. And it was shocking to audiences in 1957. ‘West Side Story’ is credited with changing musical theater.” The subject matter as presented by Bernstein, Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the show, was quite revolutionary in its time—even a device as seemingly simple as starting a Broadway musical without a formal overture. ‘West Side Story’ instead begins with just rhythmic finger snaps emerging from silence, followed by an energetic opening dance sequence with guys flinging themselves all over the stage, and with “no speaking and no singing,” says Lorianne Dunn. The storyline, with its depictions of murder and even attempted rape, were perhaps even more unsettling to late ‘50s audiences. “It’s still heavy stuff—and a plea for tolerance.”
Lorianne Dunn is especially impressed with the male dancers in this production, who have major physical challenges throughout. “We have a fantastic ensemble. The guys, they just jumped in there turbo-charged from the beginning—their level of willingness to try anything, whether it’s scaling the large chain-link fence, or flipping, or approaching all of the stage combat. They’ve worked very, very hard. Few of them have any kind of classical dance training whatsoever.”
Dunn assures us that numerous elements of Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography remain in her staging of the dance numbers. “There are some things that are just so right that why in world would you mess with it? Like the cha-cha, that portion in the gym when Tony and Maria meet for the first time, is direct from the original choreography. There are parts of the Prologue direct from the original choreography. But then you marry that with your artistic sensibility, and with the physicality of the individual unique performers that you have in front of you.
“I have a great cast,” she adds. “Lysander Abadia is brand new—he’s making his debut. Comes with quite the pedigree: Carnegie-Melon-trained actor. He’s a thrill as Bernardo. And one of our (Little Theatre Young Artist) students”—Asa Leininger—“is Riff, and he has a maturity and intensity beyond his years. The women are doing a wonderful job as well, the ensemble ladies.”
Tickets were already selling well when this interview aired live on January 12. But Lorianne Dunn suggests, “Once this one opens [on January 19], sales might really escalate” through good old word-of-mouth. “Just come prepared for the ride—come ready to experience it all.”
This Little Theatre production of “West Side Story” is dedicated to Annie Carlyn. Performances will be Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00. For tickets call the Landers box office at 869-1334 or visit www.springfieldlittletheatre.org.