The Hippo


May 31, 2020








MaryJoanna Grisso, who plays Maria. Courtesy photo.

See West Side Story

Where: Palace Theatre, 80 Hanover St., Manchester
When: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays Feb. 20 through March 7
Admission: $15 to $45
Contact: 668-5588,
For more: Check out our March 5 cover story, which commemorates the Palace’s 100th birthday and provides a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to put on a show.


Audience favorite
Palace draws Broadway actors for West Side Story

By Kelly Sennott

Palace artistic director Carl Rajotte has a long history with West Side Story. As of the Feb. 20 premiere, Rajotte has directed it seven times (three times in Manchester, twice in Massachusetts, twice in Florida) and twice performed as Jets gang leader Riff. You’d think he’d tire of the play after nine productions, but the opposite is true.

“Even though you would think after the seventh, eighth, ninth time it wouldn’t be as inspiring, I think it’s even more inspiring now because I’m looking at it from a more grown-up point of view,” Rajotte said during a short interview between rehearsals. 
The audience hasn’t tired of it either.
“It’s an audience favorite,” Rajotte said. “It’s got beautiful, gorgeous music, and it also has the theme of forbidden love, which I think everyone can understand or has experienced at some point.”
The musical — with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents — is a 1950s New York version of Romeo and Juliet. Instead of opposing families, protagonists Maria and Tony’s forbidden love is tested by opposing gangs: the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Caucasian Jets.
Before it hit Broadway in 1957, some theater-owners and producers were skeptical about whether the play would be successful; its fight scenes, though accompanied by lots of dancing, are just as violent as Shakespeare’s, and it was uncertain whether audiences were ready for the dark themes, sophisticated music and social problems imbedded in the musical. But they were; the musical was nominated for six Tonys (it lost “Best Musical” to The Music Man but won two others), and the 1961 film adaptation won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
West Side Story is extremely physical, even for Rajotte, who’s known in Manchester for his athletic dance choreography. During his first time acting as Riff, he broke his arm mid-rumble just before Act II.
“But I was so young then and into my craft, into the art, that I said to the doctor, ‘We can’t put the cast on! We still have three more shows!’ So I performed without a cast for the last three,” Rajotte said. 
Rajotte’s also psyched about and inspired by the cast.
“This time, I actually thought I was going to use [the play’s original choreography], but I got really inspired about a month ago and decided I was going to do it all from scratch again, and that has been a joy,” he said. “My personal style of physical movement is athletic. I like to call it ‘raw.’ I’m not so keen on doing cookie-cutout angles, where everyone is looking exactly the same. I’m looking for the motivation behind the movement.”
The New York auditions in January didn’t comprise the greatest number of actors ever, but they yielded the best quality Rajotte’s seen in a while. Three cast members — MaryJoanna Grisso as Maria, Michelle Alves as Anita and Emilio Ramos as Chino — performed during the Broadway tour that ended in June. He told them before their hiring they’d be doing new, Rajotte-style choreography.
“And believe it or not, they were very excited about that. They’ve done the same thing for two years and were open to trying something different,” Rajotte said. 
Both Grisso and Ramos are new to the Palace, but Alves returns after having performed in Chicago (as June) and Hairspray (Little Inez). 
“I hadn’t performed with The Palace before, but I decided to audition for their production of West Side Story because Michelle had such great things to say about the Palace,” Grisso said. “She loved working with Carl and Jess [Moryl] and Megan [Quinn], and the whole team at the Palace, and that it was a great community here, very loving of the arts.”
They’re not tired of West Side either; it holds personal significance for Alves, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico.
“I’m trying to bring my culture onstage,” Alves said. “It’s been a dream of mine, to play this role.” 
As seen in the February 19, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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