It is a story that embodies the melting pot of American culture. It has been told time and time again. But this version of the musical West Side Story, back by popular demand at the Pantages Theatre for a limited engagement, is perhaps the most authentic retelling of the classic cross-cultural love story.
“I think that this story is grittier, darker, in the sense that you first see the gangs covered in bruises,” said Theo Lencicki, who plays gang leader Riff. “We are from the streets — the gangs in the original [production] maybe looked more out of Leave it to Beaver.”
The musical, which follows the Romeo and Juliet-esque love story of Maria and Tony — who associate with rival gangs, the Jets, a working-class white gang, and the Sharks, first-generation Puerto Ricans, in 1950s New York City — promotes a message of love that survives despite bigotry and hate.
Following a tradition of recent Broadway revivals such as Hair and South Pacific, Lencicki said writer Arthur Laurents’ 2009 re-design of West Side Story has made a conscious effort to incorporate more realistic elements in the story to make the production feel more contemporary.
For Lencicki, what stands out most is having the Puerto Rican characters speak in their native tongue for a portion of the musical.
“It’s only 10 percent of the show, but it really enhances and distinguishes it,” Lencicki said.
Though Lencicki does not speak Spanish or Portuguese, he said having actors speak in different languages has created a bond with the castmembers — many of whom are of Latin American descent.
“Even if we aren’t of Latin American descent, watching them enjoy the dynamic has allowed us to understand each other more and feel included,” Lencicki said.
Lencicki has noted that so far, audiences across the country have responded favorably to the more dynamic Latin flavor of the production, though some regions have picked up on the changes more than others.
“When we were in New Mexico the audience had a lot of Spanish-speaking people, so some of the jokes that don’t normally land in say, Boise, Idaho were getting a lot of laughter,” Lencicki said.
For example, in the scene where the female lead Maria (MaryJoanna Grisso) says in Portugese that she wants her dress to be lower, Grisso’s words brought the house down.
“Even though a regular audience can see she’s lowering her dress, the language and dialogue gave it even more flavor for those who understood what they were saying,” Lencicki said.
There is also an emphasis on physicality in the revisal, which gives the musical a tougher feel. At times, though, the intense dances can be demanding for the actors, with some performers even suffering physical setbacks.
“This show is very physical, very difficult for the body,” Lencicki said. “When someone gets injured it’s not an ideal situation, but the cast has really banded together welcoming [substitutes], and that has been a really great thing.”
For Lencicki, it has been an honor, albeit a challenging one, to play Riff.
“The singing, the acting, the dancing — to be able to be cast in the role to show all three of those; it’s a dream role for any male performer,” Lencicki said. “To do all three is a blessing.”
Lencicki said that when he plays Riff, he wants to humanize the face of the Sharks.
“He’s such a strong character: stubborn, a leader,” Lencicki said. “But through his relationship with Tony you get to see more of his adolescent side, rather than the kid that grew up too fast.”
The Scranton, Pa., native said he carries a special connection to his character, whom he surprisingly finds a lot in common with.
“There’s so many relatable things,” Lencicki said, “from being from a west side part of a city, growing up with the camaraderie of playing sports and now, dancing with these guys every night. This bond we have that’s so strong from acting and reacting [together] on the stage, I feel like I get Riff’s camaraderie [with the Jets].”
He observed that Director David Saint and Laurents have brought new life to the production.
“It’s been great to work with these creative people,” Lencicki said. “We’re doing such a classic thing and affecting an audience, and in turn affecting ourselves and pushing our limits.”
Whether you’ve seen the show before or are new to the musical, Lencicki noted that the power of the storyline will still move you.
“The choreography, the original music is absolutely beautiful,” he said. “I think if you just let yourself go you’ll find yourself crying with Maria when the curtain closes.”
West Side Story runs at the Pantages Theatre through Sunday, April 14. Tickets start at $25. For more information visit westsidestoryontour.com.