‘West Side Story’ at E.J. Thomas Hall

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Michelle Alves left and MaryJoanna Grisso in West Side Story. The Broadway production will be on stage May 7 and 8 at the University of Akrons EJ Thomas Hall. (Carol Rosegg)

Playing the role of the brash Anita in the second national tour of West Side Story is a dream come true for Michelle Alves, who hails from Puerto Rico.

She has wanted to play the Sharks’ Anita, best friend of romantic lead Maria, since she first saw the legendary musical in her homeland at age 5.

“She’s more like me. She’s really energetic,” Alves said April 23 from the tour’s stop in Oklahoma City, Okla. “I was born to play Anita.”

The West Side Story tour, which stops in Akron on Tuesday and Wednesday, is a non-Equity tour based on the new, bilingual script and lyrics featured in the show’s latest Broadway revival in 2009.

Alves, born and raised in Puerto Rico, moved to New York two years ago after spending 12 years as a commercial dancer and several more years working in regional theater throughout the United States. Her dance background, based in street jazz and hip-hop, has included work with the Black Eyed Peas, Ricky Martin, rapper Pitbull and Nelly Furtado.

Her musical theater work in Puerto Rico and the United States includes Hair, Rent, Chicago and Hairspray. West Side Story is Alves’ first national tour.

Musical theater aficionados know that West Side Story was one of the first musicals to seamlessly blend dance into the book, music and lyrics of a musical to tell a story. Lyricist Stephen Sondheim writes about this new integration of dance, music and book in his Finishing the Hat. The first attempt at such sophisticated integration had come with Agnes de Mille’s Oklahoma! in 1943.

The young Sondheim, collaborating with legendary composer Leonard Bernstein and book writer Arthur Laurents for West Side Story, was writing lyrics to someone else’s music for the first time in 1955. Bernstein’s idea of poetic lyrics was very different from Sondheim’s, and in an effort to please Bernstein, he created some “self-conscious” lyrics that make him cringe to this day.

For example, when Maria sings about her secret love in I Feel Pretty, Sondheim knew that her singing “It’s alarming how charming I feel” wasn’t really how Maria and her friends would talk. He has never been fond of his lyrics.

The musical revival, which opened on Broadway in 2009, aimed for an authenticity that would help solve such problems in the lyrics by making West Side Story bilingual. Creators also said the revival would focus more on telling the story of Tony and Maria in love, the late book writer Laurents said in a 2009 New York Times interview. Laurents was the revival’s director at age 91.

The goal in using a bilingual script and lyrics was to create a more visceral language of the New York streets that underscored the cultural misunderstandings between the Sharks and the Jets.

Now, the song I Feel Pretty has been translated to the title Siento Hermosa, and Anita’s angry A Boy Like That is called Un Hombre Asi. The goal in integrating the Spanish is to heighten the story’s emotional drama.

For the revival, Sondheim’s lyrics were translated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the musical In the Heights, which brought the Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights and its immigrant community to life.

The show’s bilingual script, which Alves said is now 10 percent Spanish, had a higher percentage in its original Broadway revival version. The amount of Spanish was cut back a year into the Broadway run but the songs I Feel Pretty and A Boy Like That are still sung in half Spanish.

“I think it works perfectly right now. … [People] still laugh with the song,” Alves said of the giddy I Feel Pretty.

“I think it’s perfect for the Latin community. They can identify a little more with this story,” she said.

For the Broadway revival, Laurents insisted that cast members playing Puerto Rican characters be Latino. In the current tour, two are from Puerto Rico, two from Colombia, one is from the Dominican Republic and another is part Cuban, part Puerto Rican.

Alves, 31, said her primary language is Spanish but everyone in Puerto Rico is obligated to learn English at school. In her culture, the movies, menus and billboards are in English.

“Singing in Spanish, for me, is a privilege, especially in this musical,” Alves said.

In the latest revival, the show’s “taunting scene,” in which Anita goes to Doc’s drugstore in an effort to deliver Tony a message from Maria, has become more violently graphic. It had previously been portrayed as an attempted rape scene by the Jets.

“Right now, it’s really shocking. It’s not vulgar. It goes perfectly with the story line,” Alves said of her emotionally draining scene, which is done completely in English. “It’s a beautiful scene, though. It’s really hard; it’s really tough. It’s a rape but it’s made beautifully. I can feel a deep silence and I know they’re [the audience members are] with me.”

Alves said she loves original director/choreographer Jerome Robbins’ balletic dance style, reproduced by Joey McKneely for the revival. All of the dances are based in ballet technique but the electrifying The Dance at the Gym, where the Jets and Sharks first face off, has “a lot of tropical heritage in it” in a mix of ballet and jazz.

The actress said the musical’s timeless story carries messages that are still topical today about immigration, racism and the problem of gangs.

West Side Story is one of those shows that doesn’t need to change. People will enjoy it 100 years from now,” she said.

Alves, who has been in the current tour since October, began auditioning for West Side Story four years ago, for the first national tour. When she ran into the show’s Spanish translator Miranda at a Latin radio station festival two years ago in Orlando, she was excited to tell him she had landed the part of Anita for the second national tour.

She had beat out more than 400 women for a part as a Sharks girl in the second national tour. Miranda congratulated her and told her to have fun.

The musical’s 34-member cast is having a blast on the road, Alves said: “We enjoy it. We live it.”

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.

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