Nov. 2 2011 12:00 AM

Can some Spanish flavor spice up ‘West Side Story’? Si, se puede, says one of the tour’s stars


One of the ways in which theater trumps other forms of media is that you never see exactly the same show twice.

“West Side Story” — written by Arthur Laurents, with
music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — was first
performed in 1957, and in the 50-plus yea

rs since then, much of the
original has remained constant, with only minor changes to keep the
musical fresh while maintaining its timeless appeal.

The musical is based on  Shakespeare’s
“Romeo and Juliet.” using the violent atmosphere of gang warfare to
juxtapose the romance that blooms between Tony, a member of the native
Jets, and Maria, whose brother is one of the Puerto Rican Sharks.

The characters are “surrounded by racism, hatred, and
bigotry — and love tries to surpass all of that,” says Ross Lekites,
who plays Tony in the touring cast, which comes to the Wharton Center

(The following night, the Oscar-winning film version of
“West Side Story” returns to theaters for a 50th anniversary showing at
7 p.m. Nov. 9, at Lansing Mall Cinemas; call (517) 321-1521 for ticket

The unique character of “West Side Story” is partly due
to some of the late-1950s slang that the characters use; that remains,
in some form, in this latest version.

One of the most pervasive aspects of the current version
of the show, however, is the inclusion of musical segments with Spanish

“It gives the Sharks more of a sense of a personal character, Lekites said. “It empowers them more than (they were) originally.”

Evy Ortiz plays opposite Lekites as Maria. Of the
actresses to have played the character on Broadway over the years, she
is one of the first who is actually Puerto Rican. Lekites says that
adds greater depth and authenticity to her portrayal.

“She brought in pictures on one of the first rehearsal
days of her family,” he said. “They look like Maria and (other
characters), all up on the rooftop of their apartment in New York City.  And I think to her it definitely hits home.”

Two of the show’s songs, “A Boy Like That” and “I Feel
Pretty,” are sung partly in Spanish, adding more of that ethnic

Part of the show’s enduring power comes from a lamentable
common thread stretching from the 1950s up to the present day. “It’s
sad that racism is still a huge part of our society and our daily
life,” Lekites said.

Social issues, such as America’s changing ethnic
landscape, certainly play a critical role, but there is yet another
core value at the heart of this “West Side Story.” David Saint, the
director of this latest incarnation, was a close friend of Laurents.

“David Saint worked with Arthur on the Broadway
production as associate director, and he was Arthur’s closest friend
for 25 years,” Lekites said.

When Laurents died earlier this year, Saint inherited his estate:  “He’s as close as you can get to the playwright.”

’West Side Story’

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8 , Wednesday,
Nov. 9, and Thursday, Nov. 10; 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11; 2 and 8 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 12; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13

Wharton Center