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Monday December 22nd 2014

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A West Side Story

By Jennie McKeon

After 56 years, “West Side Story” is still as poignant and beautiful as it was when it opened on Broadway.

Based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the story follows star-crossed lovers, Maria and Tony.
The only problem in their relationship is that the Puerto Rican Maria is sister to Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, and Tony is a member of the Jets. The Sharks and the Jets are not friendly toward one another, to say the least.

Your high school may have done a simple production of the play, or you may have caught the 1961 film late at night on Turner Classic Movies. On January 3, you can see it on the Saenger stage as part of the Broadway Season.

The show has been traveling since about late September. Anthony Raimondi, the production’s dance captain has been enjoying every performance.

“The show is timeless,” he said. “It has everything from characters to dancing to the songs—it’s all historic. It still delivers the message that love cannot last in a world of bigotry and hate.”

As a dance captain, Raimondi watches every show to maintain the quality of the dancing—which is about half of the show. There’s a lot of pressure to maintain the integrity of a well-known and well-loved classic.

“There is pressure, absolutely,” Raimondi said. “The show has amazing choreography. My job is to make sure the intensity of the show remains from rehearsal on.”

Watching the show as a bystander, the dance captain has heard audiences sing praise of the production.

“I heard a lot of feedback from people that have seen the original play and said this production lived up to it,” he said.

The show itself is a reconstruction of the original 1957 Broadway musical.

“There’s about 10 percent more Spanish—it give the Sharks a little more authenticity,” Raimondi said.

He is also ready to jump in at a moment’s notice if a dancer goes down. There are no taking sides, he has to stand in for both the Jets and the Sharks, and so he’s pretty neutral.

“I cover both gangs,” Raimondi said. “I have to be prepared to jump out at any time.”

Even if it’s through fancy footwork, dancers in musical theatre have to learn to act.

“We learned the pain and the anger behind what it’s like to be a gang member,” Raimondi said. “Every single movement has meaning to it. There’s a lot of character development, a lot of clues that give insight to the characters.”

Raimondi is no novice when it comes to dancing, but “West Side Story” is his first stint in musical theatre.

“I was pretty nervous,” he said of the beginning of the tour. “The show is a historic piece of choreography. To live up to that is nerve racking.”

Touring a show around the country can create even more nerve-racking moments.

“It is a challenge,” Raimondi said. “There are times when we have to adjust and cut a few dancers, but we try to keep the stage as full as possible.”

Although this is Raimondi’s first musical he hopes that it isn’t his last.

“I’d like to continue with ‘West Side Story.’ And I’m so glad that this was my first musical,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed of being in ‘Newsies.’ That’s on top of a lot of dancers’ lists—anyone of those dance-heavy shows.”

As for now, Raimondi is just enjoying doing what was once his fantasy.

“I never thought it would actually happen,” he said. “This is my dream.”

WEST SIDE STORY
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 3
WHERE: Saenger Theatre, 118 S. Palafox
COST: $58-$78
DETAILS: 595-3880 or pensacolasaenger.com

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Fun Facts about “West Side Story”

When Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the music, and Jerome Robbins, who came up with the concept and choreography, first began discussing an adaption of “Romeo and Juliet” in the early 1950s, their first thought was to examine the tensions between Catholics and Jews on the Lower East Side. Early drafts were titled “East Side Story” and the action took place around Easter and Passover.

During the filming of the 1961 adaptation, the actors in the rival gangs were instructed to play pranks on each other off the set to keep tensions high.
The original Broadway production won two of six Tony award nominations including Best Choreography and Best Scenic Design. The 1961 film won 10 of 11 nominations, setting a record for biggest Oscar-winning musical of all time.

In the 1961 film, the singing voices of Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, the main roles of Maria and Tony, were dubbed by Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant. Marni Nixon also provided the singing voice for Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”

Most of the original Broadway cast were rejected for the film as either photographing too old or actually being too old for the teenaged characters. Since Hollywood was accustomed to dubbing the singing voices of many stars, dozens of non-singing actors and actresses were tested or considered for the leading roles. Among them: Suzanne Pleshette, Jill St. John, Audrey Hepburn, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Elizabeth Ashley, Anthony Perkins, Warren Beatty, Bobby Darin, Burt Reynolds, Richard Chamberlain, Troy Donahue and Gary Lockwood.