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BWW Interview: Director Richard Israel Shares his Vision for Bringing WEST SIDE STORY to the Stage

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As the world prepares for the Centennial of legendary American composer Leonard Bernstein this August, La Mirada Theatre and VPAC present perhaps his greatest musical and one of the most memorable love stories of all time, WEST SIDE STORY. As powerful, poignant, and timely as ever, the thrilling Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim score, which includes "Tonight," "Maria," "America" and the classic "Somewhere," remains one of the best ever written.

In it, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is transported to modern-day New York City with two lovers, Tony and Maria, caught between warring street gangs; the Italian-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Their struggle to survive in a world of hate, violence, and prejudice is one of the most innovative, heart-wrenching and relevant musical dramas of our time.

WEST SIDE STORY is being presented for four performances March 10 to 12, 2017 at Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) on the campus at Cal State Northridge; followed by an engagement from April 21, 2017 through May 14, 2017 at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in La Mirada, California. This La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby production, with book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and music by Leonard Bernstein, is being directed by Richard Israel, with musical direction by Brent Crayon, and choreography by John Todd.

Director Richard Israel has been a member of the Los Angeles theatre community for almost 30 years and is the recipient of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Milton Katselas Award for Career Achievement in Direction as well as the 2014 LA Stage Alliance Ovation Award for Best Direction of a Musical for "110 in the Shade" at the Actor's Co-op in Hollywood, as well as directing a wide array of plays, musicals and new works to much acclaim. I was thrilled to be invited to speak with him about his vision for the WEST SIDE STORY production, which I am happy to share with you.

After appearing in films, television and theatre, you changed the focus of your activities from acting to theatre directing and producing. Most actors say, "What I really want to do is direct." What made you decide to switch gears and do you ever miss acting?

It actually just sort of happened for me. Even when I was primarily acting, I always directed shows at the same time, first on a very small scale which morphed into bigger and bigger productions as I discovered I really had an aptitude for it. And thankfully, my career has progressed so I am offered chances to direct in all types and sizes of venues now. I really love the creative challenge my career offers me!

I remember reviewing your Actors Co-op production of "110 in the Shade" which I thoroughly enjoyed. But WEST SIDE STORY is being done on a much larger scale. Is that challenge more gratifying to you as a director?

Like changing roles when acting offers you the chance to work on your skills, I enjoy switching directing hats to change things up and to see things in new ways. I love the challenge of directing a big show on a small stage for the creative challenges it offers. And of course, larger theaters offer a different kind of creative challenge due to the scope of the production. It's the same as an artist painting a small portrait as opposed to a huge mural - only the scale changes but the creative need to share your vision so it is understood remains the same, to make sure the story does not get lost in space. And of course, in larger theaters you have bigger production meetings with more staff to coordinate. Every show is special and gratifying in its own way so I don't really have a preference on theater size. But if I was asked to direct a really small show in a really large theater, I am not sure I would know how to do that. But so far, so good!

You have assembled quite a production team and cast for WEST SIDE STORY. Tell me how this McCoy Rigby Entertainment production came to fruition.

Producers McCoy Rigby Entertainment is a big operation that feels like family, and they are committed to creating theatre of real significance, as am I. About a year ago, when they were putting together this year's season and I was asked to be involved, I mentioned how much I have always wanted to direct a production of WEST SIDE STORY. Like me, they recognize there is a real responsibility in presenting this musical and we must take its message very seriously while having a great time putting it together. And I must say, I love coming to work on the show every day as it is such a labor of love for everyone involved with no lack of will from the 60-70 people involved to do their best.

WEST SIDE STORY is as powerful, poignant and timely as ever, with gang warfare and gun violence so much in the news these days, as is the issue of illegal immigration. I am very interested in seeing your presentation of the song "America" right now, during which the Sharks sing about their experience as Puerto Ricans immigrants in this country - even though that country is really part of America. Or are you sticking with the original choreography of the musical?

After obtaining permission, John Todd, my brilliant choreographer, and I are going in a completely different direction when it comes to the choreography, and my musical director Brent Crayon is thrilled to be working with 15 remarkable musicians and such a talented cast of 32 who make Leonard Bernstein's incredible score soar to the heavens. The cast features Eddie Egan as Tony (McCoy Rigby tour of Miss Saigon); Ashley Marie as Maria (West Side Story at Musical Theatre West and Riverside Repertory Theatre); Marlene Martinez as Anita (National Tour of Mamma Mia!); Michael Starr as Riff (McCoy Rigby Carrie: The Musical); and Armando Yearwood, Jr. as Bernardo (International Tour of West Side Story).

The story takes place in 1957 New York City when urban renewal was taking away the gangs' territory, leaving them confined behind chain link fences. That environment dictates the struggle between these characters who are fighting each other over a piece of sidewalk in an attempt to maintain the size of their diminishing territory. So much of the same thing is going across America now as attempts to upgrade our aging inner cities displace those who have called it their home for years.

I remember first seeing the Academy Award winning movie with my family when we were visiting the Seattle World's Fair, and we were all in tears as we walked out of the theater, even my Dad. This time, my 18-year nephew will be seeing WEST SIDE STORY for the first time with me, his mother and grandmother, all three generations of my family. What do you think we will remember most about this production?

My goal is always to make people think and act differently when they walk out of the theater. Given how timeless Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" tragedy and Bernstein's 1957 masterpiece have become, the theme of how love cannot thrive in an environment of bigotry and intolerance remains incredibly relevant today. I hope audiences leave the show and truly believe it is time to treat all people differently, especially equally as human beings.

I know we are going to do the show proud, and even for those who think they know it, our intention is to make what is in the script resonant in new ways. We really are trying to confound people's preconceptions on what the show is, and is my hope they walk out thinking, "I didn't know it was THAT."

Tickets for WEST SIDE STORY, March 10 to 12 at Valley Performing Arts Center, can be purchased by visiting ValleyPerformingArtsCenter.org or calling (818) 677-3000. Performances on Fri., March 10 at 8pm; Sat., March 11 at 3pm & 8pm; Sun., and March 12 at 3pm which is a Sign Language interpreted performance. Valley Performing Arts Center is located on the campus of California State University, Northridge (CSUN), 18111 Nordhoff Street in Northridge, CA 91330-8448, at the corner of Nordhoff and Lindley.

Tickets for WEST SIDE STORY, April 21 to May 14 at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, can be purchased by visiting LaMiradaTheatre.com or calling (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. Performances on Wed.- Thurs. at 7:30pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm; Sundays at 2pm with audience talk-back sessions with the cast on Wednesdays, April 26 and May 10. La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in La Mirada, near the intersection of Rosecrans Avenue where the 91 and 5 freeways meet. Parking is free.

Photo credit: La Mirada Theatre & McCoy Rigby Entertainment


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