Tony, Maria and the gang, or gangs in this case, are coming to Orange! Troika Entertainment is bringing West Side Story, the classic Broadway musical that tells the tragic yet triumphant tale of two star-crossed lovers from culturally clashing clans, to Southeast Texas at the Lutcher Theater, and tickets are on sale now.
West Side Story tells the story of Tony and Maria, two teenagers from different ethnic backgrounds who have loyalty to rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. Tony, the male protagonist, struggles to distance himself from the Jets, a gang made up of Polish-American working-class teens. He left the gang and strives for a new life away from the brutality that was the norm for him with the Jets. In Tony’s song “Something’s Coming,” he expresses to Riff, his friend and the leader of the Jets, his hope that his life will soon change. Riff, intent on battling with the Sharks, persuades Tony to join him and the gang at a dance where, unbeknownst to Tony, he intends to initiate war with his sworn enemies.
In the meantime, Maria, the female lead who has recently moved to the states from Puerto Rico, is also going to the dance. Her brother Bernardo is the leader of the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang and the enemies of the Jets. While at the dance during a competition between the two groups, Maria and Tony see each other across the room, and a love affair ensues, resulting in an increasing animosity and finally in tumultuous violence between the Jets and the Sharks. As the curtain closes on Act 1, the two gang leaders, Riff and Bernardo, lay dead upon the stage floor.
West Side Story was originally produced as a Broadway musical with a libretto by Arthur Laurents and was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. According to the history behind the first production, Robbins approached Bernstein and Laurents with an idea of a modern-day Romeo and Juliet love story. For years, the group struggled with the concept, each of them maintaining a busy individual schedule. Later, Sondheim joined the team and their great collaboration finally came to fruition with the first performance debuted on Broadway in 1957. The production was a great success and garnered numerous awards for its creators and performers.
In 2009, with his Broadway revival of West Side Story, Laurents contemporized the musical, adapting the violence to give the updated production a grittier feel than the original. Laurents also altered some of the language from English to Spanish to give the characters greater authenticity. According to the tour website at westsidestoryontour.com, ticketholders are in for a thrill because the upcoming production at the Lutcher is based on Laurents’ “groundbreaking 2009 Broadway direction” and “offers a bold new design that builds on the show’s raw power and emotion to create a fresh experience unlike any that came before it.”
MaryJoanna Grisso portrays Maria, whose love ultimately overcomes the chaotic violence depicted throughout the storyline. Grisso took the time to talk to The Examiner in an interview about her upcoming performance while she was in between shows and riding on a tour bus from Denver, Co., to Casper, Wy. This is Grisso’s second season as Maria, and she has portrayed the complex character in more than 300 performances. She described the story as “inspiring” and said she feels fortunate for the amazing opportunity playing Maria has provided her.
“We’re always on the move,” Grisso said about herself and her costars, who have performed in more that 100 shows on this tour alone. “It is exhausting but also invigorating. It is really fun, and the show is so incredible that it makes it worth it. We are doing something so wonderful every night and sharing such an incredible message.”
Grisso said the message she feels that the musical sends to the audience is germane to most people, even today. Although conceived in the 1950s and based on a story from the 1500s, Grisso said the story’s message transcends time and age.
“The story is kind of the classical Romeo and Juliet story that has been reshaped for our day and age,” Grisso explained. “It’s the story of how love has to survive in a world of bigotry and hatred. Tony and Maria are in love, but there are so many factors that go into tearing them apart when they just want their love to survive in this world. I think it’s very relevant to anyone. It’s cultural clashes and racism. All of those things still exist, so it is very relevant today. And the idea that the only way to stop violence is to overcome it with love — it is very inspiring.”
Grisso, whose mother is a music teacher, holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in vocal performance with a minor in theatre from West Virginia University. She also received training through a Professional Musical Theatre Workshop with the Manhattan School of Music. She is a soprano with operatic training who has sung the National Anthem at a Chicago Cubs game and performed in regional musicals around West Virginia including “The Sound of Music,” “Peter Pan” and “Guys and Dolls.”
Not only will the audience get to enjoy Grisso’s skilled performance as Maria, but she says the audience will also be impressed with Tony, played by Jarrad Biron Green. According to Grisso, Green took a year off from his studies at New York University to go on the West Side Story tour, and she is elated to be working with him.
“Jarrad is amazing,” Grisso asserted. “He has a beautiful voice. He plays this young guy trying to leave the gang behind. He knows something is around the corner, and he thinks something amazing is going to happen, but he doesn’t know quite yet what it is. What’s great is that Jarrad is that young age, and he himself can relate to that. It’s awesome to watch him. It has been really fun.”
Popular musical numbers from West Side Story include “Maria,” “Somewhere,” and, of course, “I Feel Pretty.” Grisso said her two favorite songs are a balcony scene and a scene depicting an argument between characters Maria and Anita, Shark leader Bernardo’s girlfriend.
“I love doing the balcony scene, where Tony and Maria sing ‘Tonight,’” Grisso said. “It’s so classic and the orchestra is stunning. It is such a romantic part. I love singing that. I also really love the ‘A Boy Like That’ scene, in which Maria and Anita are pretty much yelling at each other, and the orchestrations are just phenomenal in that. They are so vivid and angry and agitated. It is really exciting to sing that. And Michelle Alves, she plays Anita, and she is phenomenal. She has been doing the show with me for the two seasons, and we have developed a very wonderful friendship. She really is like my big sister, sort of, off stage, and it has been fun to experience that relationship on stage because that is essentially Anita and Maria. It has been a lot of fun.”
Grisso said she hopes to see a packed house at each of the April 11-12 performances in Orange.
Tickets range from $35 to $65 for the three scheduled performances — Friday, April 11, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 12, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. — and are available at the Lutcher Box office, online at lutcher.org or by phone at (409) 886-5535. West Side Story is recommended for ages 13 and up due to mild violence, mature themes and dialogue.