BWW Interview: Guthrie Theater's WEST SIDE STORY is Dream Come True for Ana Isabelle

BWW Interview: Guthrie Theater's WEST SIDE STORY is Dream Come True for Ana Isabelle

"I am from Puerto Rico and we are a part of America," said Ana Isabelle, currently starring as Anita in the Guthrie Theater's production of WEST SIDE STORY on the Wurtele Thrust Stage, a character who sings the iconic song, "America," making fun of Isabelle's homeland and its hurricanes. "Singing 'America' for me was a challenge because Anita is singing negative about Puerto Rico, and I love Puerto Rico."

Born and raised there, Isabelle actually flew home to wait out Hurricane Maria with her family. "I was there for the whole experience," she said. She was actually stuck there for two weeks waiting until recovery efforts were far enough along to return to New York City.

She continued, "When I was singing about the ugly island and hurricane, that's when I had to really become an actress! To make it believable. Every time I say the line, 'Oh, is the hurricane blowing?' like making fun of it, oh my God, I was, like, even there. This is not something to make fun of or run away from. It's something to be part of and to help reveal the island."

Shortly before the Guthrie's debut production of WEST SIDE STORY opened, the theater raised $57,300 with an invited dress rehearsal as a fundraiser for Puerto Rican hurricane relief. Broadway's original Anita, legendary actress Chita Rivera, was at the Guthrie Theater the week before to perform, and she met with cast members from WEST SIDE STORY, including Isabelle.

"I'm just living the dream right now, just having the opportunity of playing one of my dream roles," she said. "Also the fact that I got to meet the original Anita... that was an unforgettable moment for me. And a key piece for the development of my final touches of my character."

Isabelle said that she was still exploring Anita's mannerisms, ways of speaking, the pitch in her voice, "all the little things that make a character."

Ana Isabelle and Chita Rivera

Meeting Rivera in person gave her the final touch she needed. "It was amazing. I loved her since forever, since I have been into musical theater and theater in general. But when I met her... now I adore her even more," Isabelle said. "Because as a performer she just blew my mind on stage here. I've never seen her live in presentation; having that opportunity of being present during her magic moments because she is magic on stage. It's just unbelievable how she can tell a story and she makes everybody like just be with her. You just can't take your eyes off of her."

"She looked me in the eyes and she said, 'Every time you're singing 'A Boy Like That,' remember to just tell the story - say those words and just put meaning into them. Don't just sing.' That's maybe advice that I already know but having Chita Rivera tell you and reinforce that was just magical."

Ana Isabelle

Along with this being the Guthrie's first staging of WEST SIDE STORY, Isabelle is the one lead in this production without experience in the show. "I'm the only rookie in the show," she said. "So for me it was not pressure but a challenge, a responsibility that I haven't done this show so I really need to give it my all because I'm with veterans here."

One of her role models growing up was Rita Moreno, who starred as Anita in the film version. She said she always knew that role would be for her because as a Puerto Rican she can do wit and have an accent. Her work as Eva Peron in EVITA at Asolo Rep similarly gave her confidence on the stage in mainland U.S.A. and probably got her the audition with the Guthrie.

Isabelle's manager told her about the opportunity and she'd heard of the Tony-award winning theater but asked her friends in NYC, who all encouraged her to go for it. Despite being focused on film and TV roles in her new home, Isabelle went and claims it, too, was magical. "I just went and I'm going to give it my all and see what happens," she said. "I was not totally attached to the idea - I was not desperate to the idea. If it's for me, it's going to be."

When it came time to read scenes with director Joseph Haj, she said she knew right away he was something special. Haj was very specific and going into the details with her impressed her. "I'm like, this is a director I want to work with," she said. "...if this could be for me, it would be amazing because I know I'm going to grow as an actress. That's the kind of director you want to work with."

Waiting a month for the call was hard but she spent time researching the Guthrie and now says everything she heard was true. "Being here now and experiencing all that I'd heard in person is just a dream come true. I'm very grateful," she said.

After the Guthrie's production ends Aug. 26, she will return to New York and her TV career. She has a recurring role as Sophia, a boxer, on Facebook Watch's program, "Strangers," and recently was on "Younger," a successful TV Land show also on Hulu. She started her career as a singer in Puerto Rico after winning a television singing competition and is a legitimate pop star there. She has "put a pause" on that for now but sees herself going back to music at some point. However, her "really big, big goal" is to book a series regular spot on a successful TV show. "That's the dream," she said.

More stage work, specifically Broadway, would be another experience she would like to add. Working with another well-respected director is on Isabelle's bucket list.

"I would love to work with Lin-Manuel Miranda," she said. "I admire him so much. He's from Puerto Rico and has done so much for Puerto Rico."

Isabelle actually did audition for him once. She was 16 or 17 when she got a callback for Vanessa in IN THE HEIGHTS. She was flown to New York and while she didn't get the role, she knew then she would live in that city one day. She returned there about six years later knowing you can just go there and go for it.

"My goal is Broadway, but mostly TV and film," Isabelle said. "I trust God and my path and my journey will put me in those places I want to be in the right moment."

Photos: Ana Isabelle and Chita Rivera, by Nathan Dale Studios, courtesy of Guthrie Theater; headshot Ana Isabelle, courtesy of Guthrie Theater.

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From This Author Kristen Hirsch Montag

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