Atruly timeless Shakespearean love story plays out on the harsh streets of 1950s New York in West Side Story. It’s one of the most vibrant productions on stage, with fast-paced dance numbers, actions scenes and some of the most well-known songs on Broadway.
The production is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, revolving around two rival gangs – the Puerto Rican Sharks and the American Jets – and the violence that ensues when two of their members fall in love. “It’s such a classic and it’s such as beautiful story,” says Kevin Hack, who plays Jets
co-founder Tony. “I think when two cultures really meet it’s a beautiful thing, and that’s what you get with Tony and Maria. There’s a real strength behind their love.”
It’s Hack’s second time in the lead role, as it is for Jenna Burns who plays Maria – Sharks leader Bernardo’s younger sister. Both are using the opportunity to dive deeper into their characters and make them their own.
“[Joey McKneely, the production’s director and choreographer] has a knowledge of this show that is just unlike anybody,” says Burns. “The whole rehearsal process has been about discovering even more layers because these characters have just as much complexity as we do as human beings.”
“I feel like there’s so much depth to Maria that people miss,” Burns adds. “She’s thought of as just a pretty, young ingénue and they don’t really dive much into who she is, but that’s something that has been really important to me.”
It’s an epic, though tragic, tale that plays out beautifully on the stage, and McKneely’s casting of younger, more unknown actors and actresses is at the root of the show’s vibrancy. “I always cast as young as I possibly can. These characters are teenagers who have too much energy and don’t know what to do with it. That’s what gets them into trouble,” McKneely explains. “But I also need a certain level of ballet technique and Tony and Maria have to be able to sing these magnificent notes that Leonard Bernstein wrote, so it’s always challenging to find the raw talent.”
McKneely is no stranger to the show either, having been mentored by Jerome Robbins himself – West Side Story’s original choreographer. And rather than re-working the sequences, McKneely is staging it exactly as Robbins intended it. “His choreography is part of the plot,” McKneely says. “If you remove it, you remove vital bits of characters and emotions. It really is the connecting tissue.”
The production’s Centenntial World Tour has coincided with one of the most controversial elections in US history, and it’s hard not to notice the parallels, not just in the US but around the world. “The show was written in 1957, but what we’re trying to do is remove the time frame so audiences really feel how powerful this story is,” says McKneely. “The prominent message that comes through Tony and Maria’s story is how fear of someone who is different to us can create such conflict, but also that love can be more powerful than hate.”
From Dhs250. Feb 14-18, 3pm, 8pm. Dubai Opera, Downtown Dubai, www.dubaiopera.com (04 440 8888).