The current touring production of West Side Story is going for a more realistic and grittier feel.
“These days where movies are incredibly graphic and when you turn on the news and everything is so graphic and intense, it is all about being real,” explains 22 year-old Georgia native Benjiman Dallas Redding who plays Riff, the leader of the Jets gang in the national touring company production of West Side Story. “If you watch the movie, all of the Jets have nicely coiffed blonde hair and are handsome. We literally rub dirt all over our faces”.
Helping to keep it real is choreographer Joey McKneely who called the current touring version of the 1957 musical “a West Side Story for a new generation” in a recent interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“We always have Joey there to bring us back to reality,” laughs Redding, calling it a “more grungy” approach to the characters that is reflected in the gang fights and the emotional struggles they endure in trying to find their place in the world.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, West Side Story tells the story of two rival street gangs, the Polish-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. As the gangs fight, a member of the Jets falls in love with the sister to the leader of the Sharks.
Perhaps best known for its 1961 Academy Award winning film adaptation starring Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno, Redding insists that those that have seen the movie will not be surprised or disappointed.
“While it is may be more intense, no one would look at it as being different from the movie,” insists Redding, who had never seen a stage version of the musical and only saw the movie after landing the role of Riff back in October. “It is exactly the same, the choreography, the story, the dialogue, they are all the same. The underlying tension and feel of the show is just a little more real.”
Adding to that realness is the inclusion of some of the Spanish dialogue that was added during the show’s 2009 Broadway revival, while still remaining accessible for audiences.
“We’ve cut down [the amount of Spanish] from the original revival with ours about 10-15 percent Spanish,” says Redding. “I don’t know any Spanish myself and I understood it from the very beginning. You get it from the emotional context.”
Despite having only seen the musical after landing the role, Redding does admit that he did look to Russ Tamblyn’s performance as Riff in the movie for inspiration.
“Good actors steal,” laughs Redding. “He brought something really fun and exciting to his performance. I loved his performance and I’m definitely a different Riff, but absolutely I looked to him for inspiration.”
Of course, any red-blooded gay male who has seen West Side Story cannot help but recognize the homoerotic nature of the relationship between the members of the gangs and the irony that the original team of Bernstein (music), Sondheim (lyrics), Laurents (book) and Robbins (choreography) were all gay.
“I don’t think there is anything to it, but you can’t help but notice there is an intense relationship between Riff and Tony,” says Redding as a gay man himself. “I don’t know if they intentionally meant it to be that way, but there is definitely an intentional bond between the guys”.
But don’t expect a version that might explore those bonds anytime soon and certainly not in this touring production. For now we’ll just have to be thankful for its more realistic portrayal of gang life.