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‘West Side Story’ headed to Court Street

July 15, 2018

If you are going to do outdoor theater, well, “West Side Story” is a blockbuster.

“West Side Story,” with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, debuted on Broadway in 1957. Based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet, the story transforms Montagues and Capulets of Verona into the Jets and Sharks of New York City’s West Side.

The 1961 film version won 10 Oscars — the most ever for a musical. In the more than half a century since, no musical has equaled — or topped — that number.

“West Side Story” includes such memorable music as “Maria,” “Tonight” and “America.”

Acting Out Theatre Company will present “West Side Story” in Kankakee July 20, 21 and 22 on a set created in back of Key Printing on Court Street. Showtime is 8 p.m. each night, but the venue opens at 5:30 p.m. with the audience setting up their own folding chairs and patronizing food vendors in a picnic-like atmosphere.

The Acting Out version will be directed by Jerry Cohagan, who also directed “Sweeney Todd” here. Micaela Sharman is Maria. Andrew McBurnie is Tony. Veronica Kravat, who has been involved with the Paula Aubrey Studio since age 3, is the choreographer. Ryan Schultz and Ashley Sarver direct the singing. Schultz also directs the orchestra.

Think talked with Sharon Richardson, president of Acting Out, about the show and Acting Out. Questions were asked by Phil Angelo for Think; answers by Richardson. Both are edited for length and continuity.

How many shows has Acting Out done?

This is our eighth, following “Into the Woods,” “Big River,” “Chicago,” “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Sweeney Todd.”

This might be our best setting for a show ever. The building is owned by Marty McNabb and he is a great supporter of the arts. We get to use the interior of the building, as well as the fire escape. It has a great feel like the streets of New York. It is really going to immerse the audience.

How do you pick the shows?

The board picks the shows. It has to be a musical, and it has to fit somewhere in the area. “Chicago,” our best attended show, fit right in with the streets of Momence. The Shapiro Developmental Center was perfect for “Les Miserables.”

So it would be hard to find a spot for “Phantom of the Opera.”

Yes, but I wouldn’t say we would never do it.

With outdoor theater, you must have a special weather prayer.

Well, you can’t change it, so I don’t worry about it in advance. We went five years without a drop of rain; then, we had two years when we had to use rain dates. Successful people make adjustments.

When the train rolls by (and you can hear the horn), that’s part of the show, too.

Where does your on-stage talent come from?

For this show, we have four adults, a lot of high school students, college students and young adults in their 20s. The bulk of the cast is young. We have performers from Joliet, a person from the Loop in Chicago and an Indiana couple.

There is a lot of talent in the area and there is more local theater than ever. With the internet, if you have a good reputation, people will find you.

And they are all volunteers. Isn’t that amazing. We have people who rehearse every day, Monday through Friday, nightly. The cast comes from every walk of life. Casts are similar to families, and this cast is especially close.

How has the attendance been over the years?

We hope for 700 to 1,000 per night. It is not uncommon for people to come from as far as 50 miles away. Tickets are $18 in advance at King Music, Joy’s Hallmark and atactingouttheatre.org. They are $25 at the gate.

This is a show that has a theme of gang-violence. Did you consider that?

Yes, and the story is as relevant today as it was in 1957. We still are dealing with the same problems. When “West Side Story” ends, there’s a great scene that identifies hatred as the real killer. Our gangs in the play are multicultural.

Do you have a favorite show?

“Cats.” I saw the original on Broadway and was overwhelmed by the costuming, the lighting, the makeup. I have directed “Cats” twice, once for Acting Out and once for Kankakee Valley Theatre. (She has also directed “Into the Woods,” “Big River,” “Chicago,” and “Beauty and the Beast”).

Acting Out does other things besides the summer blockbuster.

We also do the Sleepy Hollow event at Perry Farm in the Halloween season. Every other Christmas, we perform a radio play version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This will be a performance year.

Do you have a creative inspiration?

I love to create. I like to see things in other communities and try to bring them here. Both the Chocolate Tour and the Scarecrow Festival (part of the Bourbonnais Township Park District) were observed elsewhere. Future possibilities include a Water Lantern Festival from Peoria and an outdoor wine tasting from Michigan.

How rare is it to have outdoor theater?

Most groups that perform outdoors do it in a fixed amphitheater. What Acting Out is doing is bringing environmental theater, blending theater into the community. We are the only ones I know in Illinois doing that.

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