On the first day of rehearsal, “West Side Story” director-choreographer Michael Jenkinson introduced his cast and crew to a real-life tragedy.
Quoting a Santa Maria Sun article published in December, he described how the city is home to an estimated 1,400 gang members who “subsist primarily on money made from drug deals, chop shops, and selling stolen merchandise.” Their influence reaches as far as Nipomo and Lompoc.
Jenkinson sees a direct parallel between gang activity on the Central Coast and the teenage gangs who struggle for control in “West Side Story.”
“This is a story about real people,” he said. “Sometimes we forget that gang violence and discrimination.… We’re bringing those things to light.”
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Jenkinson hopes that PCPA Theaterfest’s production of “West Side Story” will help open audience members’ eyes. The musical, which opened last Friday, runs through July 25 in Santa Maria and July 30 through Aug. 22 in Solvang.
Set in New York City in the late 1950s, “West Side Story” is loosely based on William Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet.”
In this case, the “pair of star-cross’d lovers” are Maria (Mindy Lym), a Puerto Rican girl whose brother, Bernardo (George Walker), is the leader of the Sharks, and Tony (Zachary Ford), co-founder of the Jets. They fall in love against a backdrop of hatred, violence and death.
“West Side Story,” known for the songs “Tonight,” “Somewhere” and “America,” was born out of a collaboration between composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins.
In 1949, Robbins proposed writing a musical about the collision between Catholic and Jewish culture, set in the slums of the city’s East Side during the Easter/Passover season.
Instead, the team turned to the recent influx of Puerto Rican immigrants for inspiration.
“West Side Story,” which opened on Broadway on Sept. 26, 1957, won two Tony Awards and numerous accolades for its electrifying choreography and thrilling score.
The 1961 film version, starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, garnered 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture—plus a special statuette for Robbins.
Over the years, “West Side Story” has obtained almost a mythic status among musical theater enthusiasts.
Mindy Lym’s first exposure to “West Side Story” came at age 3. The film soon became a favorite selection for weekly movie nights with her parents.
“I remember begging to watch ‘West Side Story,’ ” she recalled. “At a certain point, they got tired of ‘West Side Story’ and asked me to pick something else.”
Lym’s enthusiasm for the musical, and its main character, hasn’t waned.
“She has such a huge arc in the show,” Lym said of Maria. “She starts out so innocent and sweet and pure and good. By the end of the show, she’s been initiated by death and rage.”
According to Lym, the role is physically and emotionally challenging — requiring a near operatic vocal range and dramatic depth.
“I’m breaking down sobbing hysterically for minutes at a time,” she said. “To be able to go there night after night at the drop of a pin is intense.”
“(Tony) also gets ripped apart … as his hopes and dreams begin to crumble,” Zachary Ford said.
“Tony is a role I’ve been eying for a long time,” added the actor, who played Jets gang member Baby John at age 16. “It’s difficult for directors to find people who are good in these roles. You have to find someone who is still energetic and youthful but can sing things … (meant) for more mature voices.”
He praised the cast’s performance of “America,” in which Anita (Sarah Girard) and her fellow immigrants alternately sing the praises of the United States and Puerto Rico.
“It’s really the most sympathetic song in the show,” Ford said. “You get to see the Puerto Ricans being incredibly charming. They all have these wonderful loving relationships with each other.”
Lym enjoys “Gee, Officer Krupke,” in which the Jets mock the title cop (Casey Kooyman), as much as the musical’s romantic balcony scene. “It has a lot of dark twists to it but it’s so much fun,” she said.
The rest of the cast includes Kevin Kiler as Jets leader Riff, the leader of the Jets. Billy Breed as Doc and Evans Eden Jarnefeldt as Lt. Shrank. PCPA Theaterfest’s production also features the work of musical director Callum Morris, scenic designer DeAnne Kennedy and costume de-
signer Jim Tanner.
Visually, Jenkinson said the production is “very grounded” in the late 1950s. Although the slick, urban set pieces allude to New York City, he said, “This story … could take place anywhere.”
“It’s so well crafted,” said Jenkinson said of “West Side Story.” “It is in every way an art piece because every element is so important, from the dance to the symphonic score to the storytelling.”
At its essence, Lym said, “West Side Story” is a musical about “the power of love and compassion and how that can overcome our hatred.”
“Our community needs this right now,” she said.