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‘West Side Story’: On stage in Ivoryton, Danbury

July 4, 2017 GMT

When a great Broadway play turns 60 — and its music is still popular — it’s time to celebrate with a homage or two.

This summer, the bittersweet and iconic “West Side Story” — book by Arthur Laurents with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — will have runs at the historic nonprofit Ivoryton Playhouse through July 30 and at Musicals at Richter in Danbury, July 7-Aug. 3. On one hand a touching love story, and on the other, a crime drama about bigotry, “West Side Story” is considered by many as a classic from Broadway (1957) and film (1961).

Ivoryton

“I’m really looking forward to dying,” said Victor Borjas, laughing, who portrays the Sharks’ gang leader, Bernardo. Bernardo is stabbed and dies, causing a tragic and horrifying chain of events.

“This will be a first for me. I’ve never died before. Not even in rehearsal,” he said.

A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” (written about 1599), “West Side Story” is set in mid-20th-century New York, in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, where gang warfare is common, especially between the “American” Jets and the Sharks, recent arrivals from Puerto Rico.

The tale centers on the love affair between Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Mia Pinero), and Tony, the Jets’ co-founder (Stephen Mir).

“ ‘West Side Story’ will never go away,” said Borjas in a telephone chat during a recent rehearsal break. “It’s a story that is important today,” showcasing the fear, anger and prejudice among those of different ethnic/racial/cultural backgrounds.

“Bernardo comes from a family of immigrants and I can relate to their struggles,” said Borjas, of Mexican heritage, who was born and raised in Los Angeles. “And more than that, ‘West Side Story’ is part of the American fabric, a classic piece of art, a love story like Romeo and Juliet, and with music that is so memorable.”

Initially a dancer only, Borjas left the stage when he married and “life took over. I needed to step away for a while ... and when I was ready to return to musical theater, I wanted to develop more skills as an actor and singer,” he said.

A graduate of the University of California at Irvine, Borjas resumed his training at the Jen Waldman Studio in New York, where he lives.

“I have to tell you that making the transition from dancer/dance captain to actor and singer was a lot of hard work. But here I am, doing this iconic (death) scene. I’m done after the first act,” he said, laughing.

The 1961 film version, starring Natalie Wood, Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer and Rita Moreno, won 10 Academy Awards and in 2009, Karen Olivo won a Tony for her portrayal of Anita in the Broadway revival.

Musicals at Richter

“West Side Story” will be offered by the nonprofit Musicals at Richter in Danbury through Aug. 10.

It will be directed by Stamford native and veteran theater professional Michael Limone and choreographed by Jimmy Locust, of Locust Performing Arts Center in Stamford. Westport native and Westchester, N.Y., resident Zachary Kampler, a classically trained composer, arranger and conductor, serves as musical director.

pasboros@ctpost.com; Twitter: @PhyllisASBoros