Although his character encounters a grim demise on the stage, it can be argued that Theo Lencicki is having a better fall leading the Jets than Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez, the NFL team’s coach and quarterback, respectively, who are sustaining the bulk of criticism for an underachieving football team.
Lencicki performs as Riff in “West Side Story,” the dance musical that will be performed Thursday and Friday at the Koger Center as part of the Broadway in Columbia series.
A quick synopsis: The Jets and Sharks are warring gangs fighting for territory in an Upper West Side neighborhood in New York City. During a score-settling rumble, Riff gets shanked by Bernardo, the Sharks’ leader. In a rage, Tony, a former member of the Jets who wants to stop the fight, kills Bernardo. As it so happens, Tony is in love with Bernardo’s sister, Maria.
“West Side Story” made its Broadway premiere in 1957. The American theater classic, inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” has music written by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins. The play, Sondheim’s Broadway debut, was written by Arthur Laurents. The film adaptation was released in 1961.
Lencicki, who had performed another role in a regional production of “West Side Story,” has been playing Riff since September. Lencicki is still getting acquainted with the role of a gang leader.
To create a sense of life-or-death membership, Lencicki has drawn from the spirit he’s shared with teammates on sports fields and from the bond he has with his current castmates.
“It’s the camaraderie I’ve built with friends over the years and bringing that to the table,” he said.
The Broadway revival of “West Side Story” includes changes. For instance, 10 percent of the script is now in Spanish, adding authenticity to the ethnic struggle and to the vocal rancor from The Sharks, a gang of Puerto Rican descendants. The Jets are Polish-American.
Also, this adaptation is grittier, said Lencicki, who opens the show at center stage with a black eye and scars on his face.
“The light design is darker. The fighting is more intense and realistic,” said Lencicki, who added the cast has a fight captain. (There’s also a massage therapist traveling with the show to take care of the on-stage bumps and bruises.)
“So it would look realistic when being punched in the gut,” he continued. “We look a little dirtier and grittier.”
The role of Riff, Lencicki said, encompasses all aspects of musical theater, a character that any male performer who dances, acts and sings would want. Thousands auditioned, he said.
“What’s great about this show is it’s a great American music classic,” he said. “It’s never the same show for me because the same people are never watching. It’s always new for them.”
Lencicki said he recently received a Facebook message from a young girl who, inspired by the show, wanted to pursue a career in musical theater. He responded with an encouraging message. The girl’s mother then wrote Lencicki that her daughter was so ecstatic about his response.
“For me to know I was able to do that for someone just through a Facebook message and just knowing that we’re touching the audience through our stage work and scenery, it means so much,” Lencicki said.
On the stage, much like this football season, the Jets don’t survive unscathed. Especially Riff, who perishes when Bernardo’s knife is thrusted into his stomach. His death — and the weapon that causes it — looks chillingly realistic.
“What’s crazy about it is that we use real knifes that are dulled down and retractable,” Lencicki said. “So my stomach has a lot of nicks. I’m literally swinging my body into that.”
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