August 3, 2008

Pittsburgh CLO Includes ‘West Side Story’ in Its Season

By Alice T. Carter, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Aug. 3--For Van Kaplan, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera executive producer, putting "West Side Story" on this season's schedule had a particular urgency.

Each year, when the company asks its audiences which musicals it would most like to see "West Side Story" consistently places among the top four or five, says Kaplan.

Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera first performed the musical in 1965, eight years after its Broadway debut. It has been brought back at regular intervals -- 1967, 1974, 1984, 1990 and most recently in 1999.

"And every time we do it, it is a tremendous success," Kaplan says.

There was an even more compelling reason to include it in the 2008 season, he says.

Kaplan and Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera already had secured production rights for "West Side Story" when rumors began to circulate about a planned Broadway revival.

Two weeks ago Broadway producers Kevin McCollum, James Nederlander and Jeffrey Seller confirmed that a Broadway revival of "West Side Story" would begin previews in February 2009. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for "West Side Story," will direct the revival.

Depending of the success of that production, regional theater rights would not be available until the Broadway production and its national tours were completed.

"If we do not do it now, we might not be able to do it for 10 years," Kaplan says.

Besides, he adds: "It's one of the best musicals ever written."

Jerome Robbins is credited with conceiving, directing and choreographing the original production that updated "Romeo and Juliet" by moving it from fair Verona to Manhattan's then-gritty Upper West Side and transforming the warring Montagues and Capulets into feuding gangs of Italian-American and Puerto Rican teens.

Composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim created a score of what became enduring and classical songs -- "Maria,""I Feel Pretty,""Tonight" and "Somewhere" among them.

"It is one of the greatest scores ever written. It has a compelling story that is going to pull the audience right in," Kaplan says.

Those who remember it from the 1962 film or some later revivals may remember those warring Jets and Sharks as remarkably restrained and polite when measured by contemporary standards for street violence.

"If you do go back and watch the movie, you may think, 'What clean cut kids'. They talk about using zip guns which were made with wood and rubber bands. The world was a different place," Kaplan says. "Does it hold up? Absolutely. It's about passion, hatred and prejudice."

For Kaplan, "West Side Story" also occupies a small window of opportunity that allows him to showcase his skills as a stage director.

It's something he hasn't had time to do since the 2003 season, when he directed the musical "She Loves Me" for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.

For the past five years, Kaplan has focused his attention on producing shows such as the national tour revival of "Camelot," the new musical "Doctor Dolittle," and assisting Disney Theatrical Productions in launching the national tour of "Disney's High School Musical."

"I feel like I have to have my attention 100 percent on a project. If I'm pulled in different ways it becomes difficult," he says.

Kaplan expects to be busy with two enormous projects coming up in the next year or two -- the creation and implementation of the recently announced National High School Musical Theater Awards, which will debut next spring, and the creation of a new work that he declined to discuss or identify.

So his decision to direct "West Side Story" was a matter of now or not for another three years.

"The joy is in getting into the material. It's wonderful material dramatically -- exciting, passionate, everything you want theater to be," Kaplan says. "Working with Mark Esposito (the show's choreographer) is going to be a joy. We have an exceptional working relationship. We speak the same language. That makes it all the more joyful. I know what he is working on is going to meld with me."

Kaplan also is excited about the cast he has assembled from recent Broadway performers, such as Max von Essen and Ali Ewoldt who will play the love-struck Tony and Maria, to longtime Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera regulars -- Paul Palmer who plays Officer Krupke and Gene A. Saraceni who plays Doc.

"It's all about the people in the room," Kaplan says. "Every show we do is unique and special because of the talent that comes together."


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