‘West Side Story’
Through Jan. 31
4200 Campbell Ave.,
Returning to “West Side Story” is a delight for actress Natascia Diaz.
“Ask anybody who’s ever appeared in West Side Story. They’d give a pound of flesh to do it again,” she says. “It’s a magical place to be.”
And certainly, Diaz should know. Throughout her career, she’s played “West Side Story’s” Anita in many productions, including long-running national and international tours. And now, she’s reprising the part at Signature Theatre in a version that’s selling out and winning rave reviews.
Inspired by “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” pits the Puerto Rican Sharks against rival white gang, the Jets in mid-‘50s New York. The young lovers are Maria, a Puerto Rican girl whose brother Bernardo leads the Sharks, and Tony, who’s trying to break away from the Jets. Anita is Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s friend and sometimes foil. The award-winning work is the genius of four gay theater legends: Leonard Bernstein (music), Arthur Laurents (book), Jerome Robbins (concept and choreography) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics).
“Bernstein’s music makes you soar and Robbin’s moves fit like your sexiest pair of jeans. To do it again and again is easy,” Diaz says.
But, as evidenced at Signature, there’s nothing rote about her passionate, powerful performance. Here, she brings wit and fun to “America” and a serious intensity to “A Boy Like That.” For her, each performance is a journey.
“Against my better judgment carry the message to Tony because I see the love in the eyes of MaryJoanna Grisso, who plays Maria. And I cry for Sean Ewing who plays Bernardo because we’ve built something that is ours. When he’s dead it’s awful and real. It’s a quality of concentration that I like to bring to my work. Otherwise I don’t see the point.”
Not a surprise to those who’ve followed Diaz’s career. Whether it’s opening night at the Kennedy Center or a sparsely attended matinee at a small theater, she delivers affecting, energized performances.
Diaz describes Anita as “a soul sister” who’s taught her wisdom, sex, class and pride in ways she hadn’t learned in her own life.
“And though Anita has more flair, flourish and fun than me, our spirits are really very similar,” she says.
But why play Anita again? It has a lot to do with Signature, she says. In 2008, Signature’s out director artistic director Eric Schaeffer cast Diaz as Aurora in the company’s “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” without an audition. Schaeffer was acting on the encouragement of “West Side Story” director Matthew Gardiner.
“For a New York actor that’s unheard of,” Diaz says. “That kind of assuredness and certainty about a performer storyteller is unusual, so when they ask you to play Anita, you don’t say no. Also, that Signature is right down the hill from where I live has something to do with it. It’s all a very special constellation.”
“Also, over the years I’ve been going to dance class religiously even when I’m not dancing in a show. I’m in the best shape of my life, so why not use it?”
Diaz proves it every performance by dancing Parker Esse’s thrilling and rigorous choreography based on Jerome Robbins’ original work. She more than keeps up with first rate younger dancers, some in the first blush of their careers.
“There was a time when I danced this role like a linebacker. I way over-danced it. Now, I’ve learned there’s an elegance and sensuality to the vibrant ‘America,’ and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
Diaz’s Puerto Rican-born father is an opera singer and her Italian-born mother is a psychoanalyst who started as a ballerina. After finishing Carnegie Mellon’s drama program, Diaz toured with “West Side Story.” On Broadway she has appeared in “Man of Lamancha,” “Capeman,” “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Seussical.” She has won Helen Hayes Awards for musicals “Rooms,” a rock romance, and “Jacques Brel” (both MetroStage productions). Other D.C. area credits “Carousel,” “The Three Penny Opera” and “Measure for Measure.” Today she splits her time between New York and Washington.
“When I first played Anita I felt, ‘I now know why I’m on this earth,’ and that feeling continues,” she says. “To know that about a character you’re playing is great. You feel a prowess and pride about it. The journey is alive. It doesn’t end.”