I was already looking forward to filling this gap in my cultural resume when an email hit my inbox about an "Inside Asolo Rep" panel discussion with director/choreographer Joey McKneely and set designer Lee Savage. I set my car on auto-pilot and headed up to Sarasota. It was a real treat.
|Director/choreographer Joey McKneely|
McKneely's transition from dancer to choreographer was met with accolades. He received Tony nominations for his first two shows--"Smokey Joe's Café" and "The Life." But it's "West Side Story" that serves as the signature piece of his career.
In 2000, McKneely was invited to reproduce Robbins' choreography for a production of "West Side Story" at the La Scala Opera House in Milan. As he said in an interview with Broadway.com, "All of a sudden it wasn't just the dance steps. I had to understand the entire script...There was now all of Mr. Laurents’ rich character history and emotional plot to inform the choreography. Diving into each scene made me understand where the dances came from, and vice versa." Since then, McKneely has directed productions of the play around the world, including Laurent's 2009 revival in New York. (To read the entire Broadway.com interview, click here.)
|Set designer Lee Savage|
The two men had an easy conversation led by dramaturg Lauryn Sasso.
To McKneely, the streets of New York are a character in the show. "The city is the witness, judge, jury and survivor," he said. "It's what they're fighting over." Both men envisioned a set that was unique, not just bricks and a couple of fire escapes.
Savage built on "the conflict and tension in the show, the sense of pending disaster." It's a realistic space, but tilted five degrees to add a feeling of unease.
Costume design is also an integral element of the production. McKneely didn't want a 1957 look, believing that poodle skirts and t-shirts with cigarettes in a rolled shirt sleeve would date a show whose themes of racism and conflict over the status quo are relevant today. The Jets will wear black and white and gray which, in part, is a reference to the way we see the past. The Sharks' clothing will include pops of reds and blues as they introduce color into this world in two ways.
The young cast members -- aged 16 to 26 -- have told McKneely they can't feel the hate imbedded in the play. While encouraging in a broader sense, McKneely has urged them to give themselves over to the characters in order to tell the important lessons of "West Side Story."
Hearing McKneely's and Savage's perspectives has made me even more eager to see "West Side Story." The show runs from November 13-December 27. Click here to get tickets and to read about the rest of Asolo Rep's season, which continues to explore the theme of the American Character.