A timeless tale still very relevant today
By Catherine Spearnak
Art as activism is the way James Vasquez sees the upcoming production of “West Side Story” by the San Diego Musical Theater, slated to open Feb. 14 at the Spreckels Theatre Downtown.
The musical, based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” pits rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, for dominance over a blue-collar neighborhood in the Upper West Side of New York City.
Racism marches in front and center as the Sharks, Puerto Ricans, and the Jets, Americans, vie for the blue-collar neighborhood. When Maria, sister of the leader of the Puerto Rican gang, falls in love with Tony, a member of the white Jets, the results are violent and catastrophic.
The young protagonist, Tony, a former member of the Jets and best friend of the gang leader, Riff, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. The dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and focus on social problems marked a turning point in American musical theatre.
West Side Story premiered on Broadway in 1957 and in 1961, won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Music is by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents. Jerome Robbins directed.
“The brilliant thing is that it is 67 years old, yet it is still relevant today,” Velasquez said about the musical. “It’s a classic, so it’s a real honor to work with this music and these dancers and this story.”
One of the dancers, and also a supporting actor, is Jacob Narcy, 24, of Chula Vista. Narcy plays Chino, “the little buddy” of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. Narcy, who is a trained dancer accomplished in every aspect of dance including ballet, hip hop, modern, tumbling and musical theater, said he is thrilled that there is so much movement in the piece. In one scene, 28 of the 31 cast members dance together on stage.
“West Side Story is one of the iconic pieces that you dream about doing one day,” he said. “I am just excited that I am getting the opportunity.”
This is only Narcy’s second musical. He performed previously in “Oklahoma!” at the Lawrence Welk Theatre in Escondido.
Kikau Alvaro, who plays Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, is certainly familiar with this musical. He has appeared in it twice, once in Olmey, Maryland, and once in San Jose, California, his home, but as different characters in each.
“I have matured and grown into myself,” said Alvaro, who is 34 playing a 20-something. “I wasn’t necessarily ready to play the part before.”
Alvaro agrees with director Vasquez that race relations are still relevant today. He praised the genius of Bernstein and Sondheim.
“I’m hoping that people who have not seen the show are able to see it,” he said. “It’s in the canon of Shakespeare. There is something about it that is very important.”
“West Side Story” runs through March 1 at the Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, Downtown. Tickets can be purchased through the Spreckels box office or through Ticketmaster. Visit sdmt.org for tickets and showtimes.
—Catherine Spearnak is a San Diego-based freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.