The opening of Virginia Rep’s production of West Side Story marks a reunion for actors Brittany Santos and Justin Luciano, who play the lead characters of Maria and Tony, and the show’s director Nathaniel Shaw.
“I directed the two leads before in these roles in 2016 at Cortland Rep in upstate New York,” says Shaw, Virginia Rep’s artistic director. “There are others in this production that were part of that production as well.”
Bringing the actors in for the show was a combination of chance and design. They were two of the first actors to spring to mind when Shaw was starting the audition process. “I would happily recreate this work with them again and again,” he says, noting he auditioned actors in both New York and Richmond. “They rose to the top of the heap.”
Shaw chose to add the Tony Award-winning musical to this season’s lineup for a variety of reasons. The first centers on the tumultuous times we live in.
“I felt drawn to plays that examined what it is to be American, particularly plays that examine what it’s like to be other than a white American,” he says.
The show also appeals to Shaw’s extensive dance background and his love of great theater.
“I don’t feel like anyone has topped West Side Story. I couldn’t adore the piece more,” says Shaw, who met his wife when he was performing the role of Riff in the show a few years ago. “This show is a masterpiece.”
Virginia Rep’s production has been accepted in “Leonard Bernstein at 100,” a 2-year global celebration of the life and career of Bernstein who composed the music for West Side Story. The celebration kicked off at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2017 and officially runs through the end of August 2019.
The classic show draws upon the source material of “perhaps the most beloved love story in the history of the English language – Romeo and Juliet,” Shaw says. “I think it stands as one of the, if not the very, finest masterworks in relation to bringing the script, music and dance together. It contains some of the most beautiful love songs ever penned.”
The show’s social relevance relating to embracing other cultures and people is current and timely. “Right now, in our society and across the globe we see that conversation at a boiling point,” Shaw says.
That fact also resonates with New Jersey born Luciano who believes it allows people to see through a lens everything that is “going on in society today,” he says. “It’s exciting to bring these characters who were written sixty years ago to a topical time.”
“Hopefully, we will have people questioning their learned behaviors and attitudes to certain problems so when they leave the theater they will consider something new,” Santos adds.
The show’s themes are reflected in the role of Tony who is torn between two worlds. When you watch West Side Story, you can’t “help but make those ties to everything going on now, and how people feel about people who are different than them,” Luciano says. “What do we have to do to hopefully one day make those differences a non-issue?”
Tony is a complicated role, he adds. “Here’s a kid – for whatever reason – ended up in this group of men that are like brothers but not always in a healthy way. When he meets Maria, his world changes and he sees all the things he was doing wrong. His journey is from one kind of life to a better kind of life.”
Santos, also from New Jersey, enjoys the beginning of the show when Maria is a “pure and naive presence in the show. She’s curious and she gets to experience things,” she says. “She goes on a journey. She gets to grow and develop. It’s fun to do and also challenging.”
Playing a role that Natalie Wood made famous isn’t an easy task. “It’s definitely tricky,” she says. “People do have a preconceived idea of what Maria is supposed to be like and look like, how she is supposed to sing. I’m going to stay true to the script but bring my personality into it. Give my own interpretation. We’re going to give it our best.”
Virginia Rep’s production sticks to the core of the original 1957 Broadway production. “We are telling it in its period, honoring the fantastic script and Jerome Robbins choreography,” Shaw says, adding. “We don’t want to feel like a museum piece. We want modern sensibilities. We will bring our story to the work, striving to make it feel as fresh and relevant in the design process and dialogue with action keeping in conversation to today’s issues and the current feelings about race in the country. We are striving to make it feel as fresh and alive in this moment as possible.”
West Side Story open Friday, June 22, at Virginia Rep and runs through Sunday, July 29. Go here for showtimes and tickets.