A tale of teen angst

We forget sometimes that the musical “West Side Story” is a modern-day take on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” — a tale of young love thwarted by feuding families and the fickleness of fate.

I tend to think big song and dance numbers set against colorful sets and costumes — which is what I expect the touring production of “West Side Story” to deliver when it hits ASU Gammage Sept 27-Oct 2.

If I snap, will the West Side Story cast jump? (Photo: Joan Marcus)

But I was reminded, after chatting recently with cast member and seasoned television actor John O’Creagh, that it also delivers a powerful portrayal of “the difficulty kids have in defining themselves.”

ASU Gammage says the show is appropriate for ages 13 and up because it “deals with adult themes: violence, murder, rape and bigotry.” It includes “bad language, sexual innuendos and racial slurs.”

“It’s a very powerful work,” says O’Creagh, who describes “West Side Story” as “a very painful show in a lot of ways.” It’s a tough look at teens in rival gangs in New York City — and the challenge of making love survive in an atmosphere of hate.

Ali Ewoldt and Kyle Harris of West Side Story (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The original production of “West Side Story” opened on Broadway in 1957, when Americans commonly judged one another based on skin color, language and the like — something that still happens all too often today. Something else was true both then and now, according to O’Creagh. “Adolescence is a nightmare.”

The original Broadway production of “West Side Story” featured music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins. The script was written by Arthur Laurents, who died earlier this year at the age of 93.

O’Creagh recalls that Laurents attended many rehearsals for this touring production of the show’s 2009 Broadway revival, exploring the show’s characters with cast members who include Kyle Harris (Tony), who holds a BFA from the University of Arizona, and Ali Ewoldt (Maria), who holds a BA in psychology from Yale University.

O’Creagh describes fellow cast members as “sensible, disciplined and hard working.” Not surprising given that they’ve studied at places like The Juilliard School, performed on Broadway in shows like “A Chorus Line” and “Les Miserables,” and worked with dancers like Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp.

Please control the urge to attempt these West Side Story moves until you get home after the show (Photo: Joan Marcus)

But when did O’Creagh first catch the acting bug? While playing Stage Manager in a high school production of “Our Town” — which left him feeling he’d spent his whole life preparing to do acting. “It was comfortable,” recalls O’Creagh. “Acting felt like a good old pair of sneakers.”

So what’s his advice for youth considering the acting life? “Read everything you possibly can,” he says. “Learn everything you possibly can.” Study grammar and language too — because acting is a craft born and carried by words.

— Lynn

Note: Those who attend the Thurs, Sept 29 performance of “West Side Story” at ASU Gammage can stay after for a free talkback with cast and creative team members presented by 99.9 KEZ. Fans of “West Side Story” can also see the Actor’s Youth Theatre production which runs June 26-30, 2012 at Mesa Arts Center.

Coming up: Fall break camps with an arts twist

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