Life’s curves help her ‘West Side Story’ portrayal

Michelle Av­ar­ena


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.

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