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Theater

Iconic 'West Side Story' still resonates today

| Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, 12:03 a.m.

Fans of the classic 1957 musical “West Side Story” won’t have to wait for the Broadway revival in 2020 to relive the passion and energy of the modern-day “Romeo and Juliet” story.

A local production directed by Rachael Szabo and Tyler Handford of Connellsville will reacquaint audiences with rival New York Street gangs the Jets and the Sharks, and star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria, from Aug. 9-12 at Geyer Performing Arts Center, Scottdale.

Classic still relevant

Szabo says the story is still relevant in today’s world, addressing many topics that people may otherwise be uncomfortable discussing.

“We are sticking to the origins of the show. It’s a classic for a reason,” she says. “We want to transport people back to that time for a little while. I also think that it will be an eye-opener to see that some things have not changed at all since then.”

Carolyn Jerz of Greensburg will be playing Maria opposite Logan Williams of Pittsburgh as Tony in the production.

She describes her character as a playful, naive teenage girl who just wants to take part in life.

Modern ‘Romeo & Juliet’

“She has just moved to New York City from Puerto Rico and is attending her first school dance with her people, the Sharks,” Jerz says. “In my interpretation, she most likely has been home-schooled all her life. She meets Tony, her Romeo, a Jet, an American. He is not of her kind, but they instantly fall in love.”

Jerz, 16, a home-schooled 11th-grade student from Unity, intends to play Maria “as a real person, not a two-dimensional character. Because I consider myself an actress, playing Maria’s realistic emotions throughout the show is just as important as hitting the high notes,” she says. “I like making people cry.”

She also is having no problem slipping into her Puerto Rican character.

“My ballet and flamenco teachers are from Cuba, so I had the Hispanic accent down from hearing it so much,” she says.

Jerz has performed for PICT Classic Theatre (“Jane Eyre” and “The Merchant of Venice”), Stage Right (“Beauty and the Beast”) and Latrobe Cabaret Theatre (“The Miracle Worker” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). She was the 2015 and 2017 winner of Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Shakespeare monologue and scene contest.

Iconic role, iconic show

For Williams, playing Tony is an opportunity to perform an iconic role in an iconic show.

“I wanted to bring my own acting and singing to the role, and express the feeling that love is strong, and should be fought for no matter what boundaries may exist,” he says.

“This show should be dedicated to those who feel like they’re watching from the ‘outside,’ to those who feel like they don’t belong; to those who feel like they have to change who they are to be accepted.”

His message to those people: “Be proud of who you are; celebrate the uniqueness of your character; relish in the knowledge that what makes you different today will be what others love about you in the future.”

Also featured in “West Side Story” are Will Herrington of Bullskin as Bernardo and Breanna Deutsch of Greensburg as Anita.

Szabo says the show has a PG-13 rating and includes some adult content, including language, sexual situations and violence. The director advises parents to research the stage show – not the film version – if they have concerns about bringing anyone younger than 13.

She recently co-directed “Cabaret” with Handford and has performed in “The Music Man” and “Peter Pan” at the State Theatre.

Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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