The intense chemistry between star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria draws more than the audience into MUSKET’s production of “West Side Story,” opening Friday.

Paul Wong
LESLIE WARD/Daily
Sharks.

Even the actors walk off the Power Center stage almost believing the feelings are genuine.

“During rehearsal, I fell in love with Maria,” said Sean Panikkar, a third-year Music student who plays Tony. “It’s just an amazing experience when it becomes real.”

The show’s cast and crew aims to reach that same level of authenticity in every aspect of “West Side Story,” said director Andy Wiginton, a fourth-year RC student. This production of “West Side Story” incorporates a variety of racial, ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds into the musical’s original narrative. The plot follows Tony and Maria’s secret romance in the midst of a culture clash between two gangs, one white and one Puerto Rican.

Wiginton replaced the white gang with a multi-ethnic American gang in order to bring the show’s ethnic conflicts up to date. He said this allows the cast to explore the societal privilege these young people receive as American citizens and native English speakers.

Other characters represent minorities that have gained visibility in American culture since “West Side Story” debuted in 1957. These minorities include immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, homosexuals, Muslims, prostitutes and the homeless, Wiginton said.

“We’ve made this a community that could exist,” Wiginton said.

But he said MUSKET’s production remains true to the script of the original musical, a collaboration between Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Roberts. Much of the challenge for him lay in balancing the classic aspects of the musical with the crew’s innovative ideas, Wiginton said.

“From a directing standpoint, I have to reconcile the fact that it’s ‘West Side Story’ with this new take on it,” he said.

The crew only altered the play’s presentation in order to preserve the integrity of the original work. For example, a large chorus will sing “Tonight” and “America,” musical numbers which were solos in the original “West Side Story.”

This change allows the show to harness the power of its 40-person cast, Wiginton said. The actors contributed a lot of input on their characters’ personalities and asked many questions about their motives, he said. He called the cast “a director’s dream” because of the way the actors’ analyze their roles.

The involved cast members also help each other improve their performances, said LSA first-year student Jamie Davis, who plays the role of Maria. She said the cast members all carefully watch the scenes in which they do not appear. At the beginning and end of each rehearsal, the actors sit in a circle and exchange compliments and constructive criticism, she said.

“We go out as a cast to build real relationships onstage and off-stage, and you can tell,” she said.

Along with enjoying the actors’ interactions, Panikkar said he also hopes the audience will consider discrimination from a different viewpoint after watching the musical.

“Students will come because it’s ‘West Side Story,’ but they’ll leave with a fresh take on it,” he said.

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