BH Interview: 'West Side Story''s Evy Ortiz - Tackling a Timeless Romance with a 21st Century Spin

Actress Evy Ortiz went from recreating scenes from the film version of "West Side Story" as a young girl to belting out classic songs like "Tonight" to audiences across the country.

The native New Yorker is currently in Denver playing Maria in the traveling Broadway version of "West Side Story," playing through Jan. 1, 2012 at The Buell Theatre. The new "Story" doesn't jettison the timeless bond between Maria (Ortiz) and Tony (R0ss Lekites), but a few language tweaks and number shuffles give it a more modern interpretation.

West Side Story Evy OrtizOrtiz checked in with Big Hollywood to share her thoughts on the role and why "West Side Story" still matters, both to theater lovers and the culture at large.

BH: Do you recall your first exposure to "West Side Story," and what are the most vibrant memories from it?

Ortiz: My first exposure to "West Side Story" was the film. I remember wanting to be Natalie Wood and dancing around to the music. My family used to sing the music all the time and act out some of the scenes. Imagine my aunt and Mom bursting out into "A Boy Like that"....pretty hilarious.

BH: Do you try to incorporate aspects of past Marias into your performance, or do you try to wipe the slate clean and make her wholly your own creation?



Ortiz: Being familiar with the character definitely helped just because I didn't have to worry about learning lines and lyrics too much. Although I did have to memorize some new Spanish additions. I feel like I was able to take the Maria I played before and just fully flesh out who she really is. I worked really hard to make sure my Maria is a real person and not the stereotype often seen. My director gave me the freedom to explore and find my own motivations for the choices Maria makes.

BH: Talk about building chemistry with Ross before the first performance began ... and has it evolved over time?

Ortiz: The rehearsal process was only two weeks. and then we had to jump into playing the roles. We've always sung well together and as time has passed Ross and I have gotten more comfortable as a team onstage. Offstage we're like brother and sister, but when I step onstage as Maria I'm fully in character and all I see is Tony.

BH: The new production makes some changes to the classic musical ... what are your thoughts, in general, on tinkering with classics?

Ortiz: I think that it could be hit or miss. Sometimes remaining true to the original concept of a show is needed because that's what the audience wants to see. And sometimes it's nice to see a piece as it would have been many years ago. A wonderful revival of "South Pacific" came to Lincoln Center in New York a few years ago, and it was a hit with audiences and critics. Those classic shows are a window into another time period and I think that shouldn't be lost. But some pieces are timeless and something new and exciting can be found in the re-imagining of them. Like this version of "West Side Story," the classic show still remains. The addition of Spanish just adds to the authenticity of the Sharks. But it's not like any other "West Side Story" you'll see.

BH: How do you see the story resonating today - as compared to how it was received during its first Broadway incarnation?

Ortiz: When it was first on Broadway it was new and different than anything else. It was controversial. Now, it's a classic show that everyone knows and loves. But this new version surprises audiences and brings a different feel to the show. So audiences aren't going to get just a standard version of the show. I think the updates were necessary to keep the story fresh and relevant to modern audiences.

BH: What's your favorite song to sing in the show, and why?

Ortiz: I really enjoy "Tonight"...the whole balcony scene sets up the love story so nicely and vocally its beautiful music to sing. I also really love singing "I Feel Pretty" with the girls. We have so much fun with that number.

BH: Why do you think "West Side Story" still matters in 2011?

Ortiz: I think the themes are timeless ... with everything that is going on in the world right now, the show's subject matter is still relevant. Two gangs who may feel so different but aren't that different really. They just want to find a place where they're accepted for who they are. And then the idea of love trying to overcome that adversity. Those are all things people deal with today.

BH: What does playing Maria in "West Side Story" mean to you as an actress and artist?

Ortiz: She's one of those iconic roles in musical theater. The music is beautiful and challenging. And she's such a well written character. As an actress and singer I don't think it's gets much better than this. To play her every night is a dream come true, and I'll be lucky to have another character of her caliber come my way in the future.

"West Side Story" wraps its Denver run Jan. 1, 2012 before heading to Portland, Seattle, San Jose, Sacramento, Des Moines, St. Louis and Cincinnati.

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