Early on in Corvallis High School’s production of “West Side Story,” Officer Krupke makes a dark reference to "forgetting to turn his body cam on" as he threatens a gang member.
The show has other modern touches like this: cellphones show up in some scenes and the show has a reference to Snapchat. None of that, of course, was in the 1957 original Broadway production.
But the updates are part of director Laura Beck-Ard’s attempt to balance the strengths of the show, which was made into a 1961 movie that won 10 Academy Awards, with a few modern touches.
“We wanted to bring ('West Side Story') into 2018 because it is so indicative of the current political climate in the world, but without destroying the beauty of the original language,” she said.
The production, which includes community members and students from across the Corvallis School District and beyond, opens at 7 p.m. tonight and runs through March 11, with 7 p.m. shows Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays.
Beck-Ard said one thing that stands out to her about the show is that the racial slurs tossed around in on stage have not changed in the 50-plus years since the show debuted.
“It’s so poignant to us that this play might as well have been in 2018,” she said.
The show’s central theme, that there is a place for everyone, where everyone can find love and be valued, is just as important today as ever, Beck-Ard said.
Beck-Ard pointed to three major reasons why to do "West Side Story" now: the current political climate, the fact that it is one of the most-requested shows for the Corvallis School District theater program, and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico. (In fact, in the Corvallis version of the show, the dance where the romantic leads meet for the first time is a benefit event for victims of Hurricane Maria.)
Brianna Brady, the Corvallis High School senior who plays the show’s Anita, said having a survivor of Hurricane Maria talk to the cast was part of the show’s cultural awareness preparation program.
“Most of the cast is white, so for us to go through an extensive cultural enrichment process was difficult, but rewarding work,” she said.
Brady, who is applying to college theater programs, said is not Latina and did not feel worthy of the part after hearing from the hurricane survivor, who had knee-high water in her house.
“You feel like you don’t deserve to play the role because you didn’t live through that, but our entire purpose is raising awareness,” she said. Brady added she did extra work, reading about Puerto Rico, writing a report for herself about her character’s life story and listening to Spanish-language music daily.
“The character study was very challenging,” she said.
Brady agreed that the show was relevant today, saying people have become isolated from people they disagree with through media bubbles to the point that they don’t understand each other.
Jack Martin, a Corvallis High School junior playing Tony, said his biggest challenge has been the pressure of being the show’s romantic lead in his first production.
“Being my first show, it’s a lot of pressure on me to be something big, loud and important on stage,” he said. “It’s been exciting, though, because I’ve been able to learn a ton.”
Martin, who wants to be a singer-songwriter, echoed the show’s message that there's a place for everyone to be accepted.
“It’s a showing saying that no matter who you are there is a place for all of us,” he said.
Martin added that people should see the show because it’s a quality production of a classic.
“It’s really gonna hit people hard. I love ‘West Side Story’ and I think we are doing it justice,” he said. “Everyone is doing their best and it’s turning out fantastic.”
Advance tickets are $12 for adults and seniors, $10 for students age 12 to 19, $8 for ages five to 11 and $5 for kids 4 and under. Tickets are available at csdtheaters.com or by calling 541-750-7990, and can be purchased at the door. Tickets purchased the day of are $3 more per ticket.