‘West Side Story’ leads say musical’s theme of ethnic differences more relevant than ever

August 25, 2017 - 9:56 AM
Kevin Hack and Jenna Burns. (Photos by Erickson dela Cruz)

Taking its inspiration from William Shakespeare’s tragic romance, “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” is regarded as one of the world’s greatest dance musicals.

With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins, “West Side Story” is set against the backdrop of the ethnic conflict between the Jets and the Sharks, two rival teenage gangs in New York’s Upper West Side district.

The acclaimed and multi-awarded musical has been produced three times on Broadway, twice in London’s West End, and enjoyed numerous U.S., U.K. and international tours over the last 60 years.

A 1961 Hollywood film adaptation co-directed by Robbins and Robert Wise (“The Sound of Music”) starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer also went on to win 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture.

In the Philippines, “West Side Story” has been staged twice and was headlined by, among others, Christian Bautista, Joanna Ampil and Karylle.

The musical is also famous for several original show tunes including “Maria,” “Cool,” “America,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Somewhere.”

Jenna Burns and Kevin Hack, and the ensemble cast in scenes from ‘West Side Story.’

Here in Manila, a new production of “West Side Story,” presented by Globe Live and produced by BB Promotion GmbH in association with Sundance Productions, Inc. NY, Lunchbox Theatrical Productions and David Atkins Enterprises, is now in the homestretch of a well-received limited run at The Theatre at Solaire.

The Manila show is part of a worldwide tour, following sold-out seasons around the world, including London, Paris, Sydney and Berlin.

Headlining the young All-American cast are Kevin Hack and Jenna Burns who play the lead roles of Tony and Maria, respectively.

In a recent interview with InterAksyon and other media, both Kevin and Jenna admitted that they were very familiar with Tony and Maria, having essayed these characters in previous productions of “West Side Story.”

“As compared to how I played him before, I just needed to make little adjustments for the Tony needed for this particular production. But I see a lot of myself in Tony so I did not need a lot of preparation except for that emotional final scene,” Kevin admitted.

For her part, Jenna said this particular production is quite possibly the closest to the original 1957 Broadway staging. She has played Maria before in a regional production of the musical staged in Florida.

“I’m 10 years older than Maria. However, I don’t feel that the character is much of a stretch from who I am. So for me, it was just like going back to what it felt like to have romantic feelings for someone for the first time,” she noted.

What makes the blossoming romance of Tony and Maria a tad more complicated is the fact that they belong to rival gangs fighting for street dominance. Tony is part of The Jets, sons of previous immigrants to America, who are fighting the Sharks, who happen to be new arrivals from Puerto Rico. Maria is the sister of the leader of the Sharks.

Both Kevin and Jenna agree that the racial overtones of “West Side Story” is a big reason why the musical remains both timeless and timely especially now that people are big on inclusivity.

Jenna says that the musical portrayed two ways to handle people’s differences.

“They can either see things the way the Jets or the Sharks did and refuse to accept people they’re not familiar with. Or just embrace each other’s differences the way Tony and Maria did.”

Kevin, a former ice hockey player, agrees. “You know we always say that there will always be at least two groups of people who won’t necessarily get along, race wise. It is something that resonates with people but there will be those who will eventually wonder, ‘Why am I even hating on this group?’,” Kevin muses.

“But the other side of it is that we’re also surrounded by multi-cultural relationships involving people who take the best of each other’s culture. It’s beautiful to see different cultures coming together and combine as one love,” he concluded.

“West Side Story” is on its closing weekend at The Theatre at Solaire until Sunday, August 27. For ticket information, visit www.ticketworld.com.ph.