by BONNIE THOMAS
You may love The West Side Story, but it’s been reincarnated as something even better. Juan Torres-Falcon, who plays Chino, took a few moments out of the tour’s incessant travelling to share what makes this new version of the play the quintessential American musical, as well as a bit about what it’s like to be involved in a roving production.
“No matter what your previous experience, this production has a very fresh coat of paint,” Torres-Falcon explains. The reason? It’s now bilingual. Touted as “Darker and Grittier,” the new West Side Story infuses the freshness by electrifying the violence, and exposing the truth, of a war between cultures. “It opens doors and creates a more nuanced experience,” says Torres-Falcon. Before the Manuel-Miranda translations, the musical was just about two gangs. The Jets had a strong identity; the Sharks, not so much. Now, the Sharks are literally given their own voice.
“But I don’t understand Spanish,” you say. It’s not a problem. An excellent job of using context, as well as summaries by the next character who speaks, surmounts any language barrier. Bernstein’s musical score remains intact, but Torres-Falcon says, “anyone who knows the songs, particularly, ‘I Feel Pretty’ will be so delighted to hear it done with both languages.”
Chino is the only character that speaks Spanish completely, except for one line. Torres-Falcon describes Chino as a shy, genuine, truly responsible young man from Puerto Rico who immigrates in search of the American Dream, hoping to return to Puerto Rico, “in a blaze of glory…He is promised to Maria, who falls in love with Tony [which solidifies the antipathy between the Sharks and the Jets]. The story then becomes about a culture clash. It’s a good representation of a lot of immigrants and Hispanics who dream of coming here and making a contribution…[and must face] hatred and bigotry,” he says.
“It’s been amazing to play Chino–it feels like a homecoming. The Sharks have the universal dreams of immigrants [which] I get to fulfill eight times a week on stage. It’s an honor for me to tell this story,” says Torres-Falcon, who is a Floridian with parents of Cuban descent.
Torres-Falcon is particularly excited for the show to come to Jacksonville, where it will stay for six days. His family is travelling from Miami to see the stage production for the first time. He is especially looking forward to his grandfather seeing it. They watched the film together on Noche Buena, or Christmas eve, when he was very young. “Even though we were not Puerto Rican we were able to connect with it. [It was] so iconic…it changed me. It’s part of why I do theatre today.”
He calls it, “the finest example of the American musical,” but he is also enthusiastic about the travelling aspect, with this particular coterie of cast, musicians and crew. “It seems like it fell from the sky. The most perfect people came together to do this show,” he says. This is his first national tour, and it’s been eye-opening. He had some misconceptions about how tour-life would be, but in general he’s been amazed by how seamless it is. They travel with the heart of the crew but rely on local professionals for help. “Travelling can be pretty intense, but it’s amazing to get to experience different cities,” he adds.
This West Side Story Is Its Best Yet
by BONNIE THOMAS