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Orlando Sentinel

Casting Puerto Ricans In 'West Side Story' May Be Tough Act

By Cristina Elía

October 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

KISSIMMEE -- It's an idea whose time may have come: Puerto Ricans acting in a play about Puerto Ricans.

But because of the subject matter of the play, it's uncertain whether Puerto Ricans will go for it.

The Osceola Players, an amateur community troupe based at the Osceola Center for the Arts, is looking to cast Hispanics in its upcoming production of West Side Story.

Although, the Osceola Center for the Arts has included Hispanic actors in previous plays,this will be the first play that the group produces that specifically looks to cast Hispanics.

"We've had a lot of Hispanic visual artists show in our space," said Kip Watson, executive director of the center. "But I'm not sure exactly what we've had [as far as actors] that are Hispanic."

The director of the play is Ron Colburn, who is known for very elaborate set designs. He said he's not looking to fill the spots with Puerto Ricans or Hispanics as a novelty.

"I'm just doing what the script says," said Colburn, about West Side Story, a play that tells the story of Romeo and Juliet through a modern look at urban gang warfare.

For 45 years the Puerto Rican community has been ambivalent about West Side Story, which plays on stereotypes, but which is regarded as one of the greatest musicals of all times.

The late Leonard Bernstein composed the music and Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics to such famous songs as "María," "Somewhere," and "Tonight." Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno won an Oscar for supporting actress in the movie.

West Side Story, about a Puerto Rican girl who falls in love with an Italian boy, was one of the first theater pieces to deal with cultural conflict, both from within and without the cultures portrayed.

Colburn said he's aware of the play's controversy, but isn't looking to play on it.

"It's not what I'm trying to do here," he said.

He doesn't believe the actors who have been invited to audition know about the play's reputation in the Hispanic community. Colburn added that he's not going to bring up the issue because it might confuse the actors.

Nonetheless, Colburn said he's having a hard time finding Hispanic actors to take on the roles.

One of the talent pools open to Colburn is Talentos, a Hispanic amateur acting group that also is based at the center. The group was originally started by the well-known Puerto Rican actress Sharon Riley. It is now taught by Tito Galarza, who also is a board member of the center.

Galarza said his group was invited to audition for the play, but as a Puerto Rican he is careful to get involved in projects that put Puerto Ricans only in the best light.

In addition, he said he wants to make sure that his students don't get typecast.

"I don't want to be stereotyped," said Galarza. "But I know that [other members of the center] see it as art. I want to be invited to participate in West Side Story, but I also want to be invited to other things. I have some very talented people who can play Hamlet."

Colburn said he will be scouting for people to audition Oct. 13 at the Viva Osceola festival in Kissimmee. He is looking for people in their late teens or early 20s, whom he characterized as "angry, young men" who can dance.

Open auditions will be held Dec. 8 and 9. West Side Story is set to open Valentine's Day 2003. For more information, call The Osceola Center for the Arts at 407-846-6257.

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