The tour of the smash hit Broadway revival of West Side Story is running at the Academy of Music through April 8.
Opened more than 50 years ago and the one musical that may have changed theater forever, West Side Story is the modern version of Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet as two young people fall in love but are kept apart by friends and family only to end with grave circumstances.
In this version, Connecticut-born and bred Michelle Avarena takes the role of Anita, the feisty girlfriend of Bernard, leader of the Sharks, one of the rival gangs portrayed throughout the show. She has played the role once before at the Walnut Street Theater.
“That was back in 2005 and some things have changed since then,” she said. “I was younger then but can now bring things to the role I couldn’t have before. Since that first time, I’ve experienced some heartache and other things in my life which now allow me to make Anita a full, multi-dimensional character.”
So that’s how Avarena’s Anita has changed. But has the production as a whole changed at all?
“Not really,” she insisted. “When Arthur (Laurents, the show’s Tony Award-winning librettist) decided to put the revival back on Broadway, he wanted to make sure it was a timeless piece. So in order to do that, there had to be some very minor updates because the show really speaks for itself. After all, why would you want to fix something that’s not broken?”
And, she asks, “why would you want to change Jerome Robbins’ seamless choreography or the beautiful music? So the script is pretty much the same, it’s just become a little grittier and darker, with some Spanish added for some of the Puerto Rican characters to make them more specific and authentic for the audience.”
And even after more than 50 years, audiences keep coming back, with maybe a few younger faces that light up when the curtain rises.
“I have noticed some younger people in the audience, and I love that because it means the show’s been able to cross generational lines and continues to be strong,” Avarena said. “I think that’s because it remains relevant, still speaking to audiences today about racism, fear of the unknown, people not getting along because of differences, and a basic love story which speaks to people for all eternity. It’s pretty much a perfect piece when it comes down to all the elements.”
Aravena said she always wanted to be a performer, particularly in musical theater. Her mother was a tumbling teacher, and so Avarena began taking tumbling lessons at age 3, branching out to singing and dancing, and appearing in local theater productions at age 9, learning her skills, she insisted, primarily by on-the-job training.
Over the years, she’s appeared on Broadway in A Chorus Line, and in various tours including Mama Mia!, Les Miserables and Jersey Boys among others.
“Playing Anita was always one of my dream roles,” the actress said. “Another was doing A Chorus Line. In fact, when I heard it was coming back to Broadway I walked around saying I was getting ready to do the show even though I hadn’t even auditioned because I knew I’d get it. It became sort of a joke, but it did become my Broadway debut.”
Ever optimistic, Avarena said when this tour ends she’ll she what happens, although she would love to step into the role of Evita next.
“That’s another strong, powerhouse role, so I’ll just put my wishes out there into the universe and hope it works again,” she said. ••
For show times and ticket information, call 215-893-1999.