The bloodlines from Music Theatre Wichita’s revival of “West Side Story,” which opens Wednesday, can be traced directly back to the 1957 Broadway original.
Shina Ann Morris, who plays Anita here, was cast for the 2009 Broadway revival by Arthur Laurents, who at the age of 93 decided to personally direct his award-winning masterpiece for the first time after writing it half a century earlier with Leonard Bernstein (music), Jerome Robbins (choreography) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics).
Ali Ewoldt, who plays Maria, was cast in the national tour of Laurents’ Broadway revival and received the benefit of his advice even though by that time he had turned day-to-day directing over to an assistant.
And choreographer Mark Esposito performed in the 1980 Broadway revival overseen by the legendary Jerome Robbins, who conceived the show and created the iconic dance movements that melded ballet with street.
Those experiences, the three say, made indelible marks on their lives and careers – mostly positive, but occasionally a little terrifying.
“I auditioned for him (Laurents) about a year before I got the role,” recalls Morris, a Wichita native now based in New York, who came up through the ranks of Music Theatre Wichita from teen choir to resident company and was one of the first local Jester Award student winners to make it professionally on Broadway. “I sang ‘A Boy Like That’ and he was only about 10 feet away. It was magical and terrifying. I kept thinking ‘this is a legendary man.’ ”
Morris didn’t get the role then, but she was cast a year later to replace a departing actress. “He told me that I ‘got’ the character and that it was all my role now,” she says. The show became the longest-running Broadway version of “West Side Story” – even longer than the original run by about two months – when it closed in 2011.
Ewoldt, a New Yorker who grew up in Westchester County and performed in the national tour, remembers Laurents being a brilliant but demanding artist.
“He was more of a directing consultant at that time because, as it turned out, it was his last production,” Ewoldt says of Laurents, who died in 2011 just shy of being 95. “He came to tech rehearsals in Detroit. He was the first to say he had a reputation for being difficult, but he was very kind to us. He had struggled over the years because he had never been the director and he had problems with the (1961) movie. This was his vision of what ‘West Side Story’ should be and he wanted us to be true to it.”
And choreographer/dancer Esposito, who has worked with MTWichita numerous times since 1994, remembers Robbins being equally demanding and difficult in protecting the integrity of the much-beloved creation that retold “Romeo and Juliet” on the mean streets of New York City as a Polish boy falls in forbidden love with a Puerto Rican girl.
“I worked with Jerry several times, from the 1980 ‘West Side Story’ with Debbie Allen to ‘Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,’ which recounted his life through dance. He was a genius. He was brilliant. But he was extremely demanding. He was a demon. He liked to manipulate and use some people as scapegoats. But he could be generous if you gave him what he wanted. He never had an issue with me,” says Esposito, who transitioned from performer to choreographer in 1995 after 18 years and 16 Broadway shows and national tours.
For MTWichita’s 1994 version of “West Side Story,” Esposito co-choreographed and performed the role of Bernardo, leader of the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks. Coming back for the 2014 revival is sort of a homecoming because it reunites him with Mark Madama, who directed both the 1994 and 2004 revivals here. And it reunites him with music director Thomas W. Douglas, who led the orchestra in 2004.
Director Madama, a faculty member at the University of Michigan who has guest-directed for MTWichita for 26 years, says that, despite many familiar faces and connections, every production is different because of the unique combination of cast members and the unpredictability of live theater itself.
“It’s exciting because it’s like doing it for the first time again,” Madama says.
Playing star-crossed lovers Tony, a former Jets gang leader trying to make something of his life, and Maria, a shy new immigrant from Puerto Rico, are Ryan Vasquez and Ali Ewoldt. Playing rival Sharks gang leader Bernardo, who is also Maria’s fiercely protective older brother, is Michael Graceffa. Bernardo’s fiery girlfriend, Anita, is Shina Ann Morris. And Tony’s best friend and blood brother, Riff, is Kevin Munhall.
“The thing that’s lost in so many productions is that Tony is so clean-cut that you forget that he was a former gang member. He’s different with Maria than he is with the guys. The challenge is to show his attempts to change without losing his street credibility,” says Vasquez, a second-year member of the resident company who just played the tragic Lt. Joe Cable in “South Pacific.”
For Ewoldt, who is making her MTWichita debut, the fascinating thing about playing Maria is the emotional journey from naive, curious teen to a determined woman who has loved and lost – all within just two days.
“Maria has just moved to New York. She has been sheltered by her parents and older brother, but she is curious and wants to know all about her new world,” says Ewoldt, who played Maria on Broadway as well as Cosette in the first revival of “Les Miserables.” “She meets a new boy who is different from what she knows but she isn’t afraid.”
Bernardo may be a gang leader, but he is also a proud and loving man, says Graceffa, a first-year company member who just played the somewhat clueless comic Stewpot in “South Pacific.”
“What I like about Bernardo is his confidence, his ambition, his purpose. He is a leader who looks out for everybody. He loves his girlfriend, Anita, and sister, Maria, and feels very protective toward them,” says Graceffa, a Vassar College grad who recently performed in the national tour of “Catch Me If You Can.” “I know he has flaws, but I also have great respect for this character.”
Actress Morris also sees her Anita as a confident leader and a protector.
“Anita is one of the first in her circle to come to America. She’s been here longer, so she feels like an anchor. She’s very sure of herself. I see her as sort of stoic, but she always seems to have something to say,” says Morris, who has been in five productions of “West Side Story.” working her way up from Rosita to Margarita to the scrappy, defiantly blond Consuela to, now, seductive, passionate and wise-cracking Anita.
For Riff, who succeeded Tony as leader of the Jets, actor Munhall envisions a “complicated guy.”
“Clearly, he’s tough as a leader who is well-liked and respected among his gang members. He’s also level-headed and rational, a guy who doesn’t let his emotions fly off the handle,” says Munhall, who spent five summers in the MTWichita resident company.
“I like how imaginative Riff is. He’s a pretty brilliant planner, like a general in war time. It’s a physically demanding role and I can personally relate to the athleticism,” says Munhall, a soccer and baseball player for 15 years in school.
Like actress Morris, Munhall grew up in Wichita. He graduated from East High and the University of Michigan, and was also one of the first Jester Award student winners to make it to Broadway. Completely independently, he and Morris both ended up in the original Broadway cast of the acclaimed “Anything Goes” revival. This fall, he joins the national tour of “Dirty Dancing” understudying the Patrick Swayze role.
“Like the others, Riff’s home life wasn’t the best so they formed a gang to have someplace to belong. They become a community, a family, a band of brothers,” Munhall says. “Riff is happy because he has found his niche as leader of this band of misfits.”