'West Side Story'

Seacoast Repertory Theatre is updating the 1950s “West Side Story” to reflect racial issues that impact today’s world.

PORTSMOUTH — Bryan Knowlton, a Portsmouth native who unveils Seacoast Repertory Theatre’s version of “West Side Story” tonight, calls this version a “more sensitive take on today’s racial divide.”

“West Side Story” originally was a 1950s musical of forbidden love amid rival New York youth gangs, but the Rep has decided to cast a 21st-century perspective to the well-known story, which opens tonight.

“My question for the audience is, ‘Have we indeed not learned from our past?,” said Knowlton, who directs and choreographs regional theater productions across the United States.

Knowlton’s first theater experience 30 years ago was watching the Seacoast Rep stage “West Side Story.” He now guides a young cast recruited from throughout New England and “hyper-aware” of modern racial complexities and primed to portray them on stage.

The interpretation of the Romeo-and-Juliet story broke new ground when “West Side Story” debuted in 1957. The Latin- and jazz-influenced score by Leonard Bernstein, choreography by Jerome Robbins and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim all reflected the swirling ethnicity and rebellious energy of American urban youth.

For those early audiences, youth gangs were in the news and a focus of national attention. The story was seen as contrasting the white background of the Jets and the Puerto Rican immigrant heritage of the Sharks.

Knowlton points out that the Jets, however, represented ethic groups not far removed from being considered “the other” in the United States.

“People forget that the Jets are not ‘white;’ they are Italian and Polish and Irish. It’s not too long before the Puerto Ricans got there to claim their turf that the Irish and the Italians and the Polish were doing exactly the same thing. They were trying to get a piece of the pie,” he said.

The ethnic mix of characters has created casting challenges for modern theaters, especially in areas such as New Hampshire with minimal population diversity. Protests against casting white actors to portray characters of color have targeted productions of “West Side Story,” “The King and I” and other popular theater standards. Furthermore, anti-discrimination laws bar employers, including theaters, from asking about an applicant’s background.

But Knowlton is pleased with his cast, whose 24 members have backgrounds including Colombia, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Italy and Ireland. “They’re a full version of a big melting pot of people from all over the world,” he said.

The Seacoast Rep’s production of West Side Story stays true to the original story, Knowlton said. But he has contemporized it, including with nontraditional supernatural elements that highlight the enduring consequences of the characters’ actions. He has also created his own choreography, to emphasize “less ballet, more aggression” while paying homage to Robbins’ innovative original work.

The set is designed by the Seacoast Rep’s in-house duo The Mad Men of Oopsy Daisy Inc! It was inspired by a 1950s abstract expressionist painting and supports a theme that “not everything is black and white,” Knowlton said.

“West Side Story” opens Friday and runs through July 20. Call 433-4472 or visit www.seacoastrep.org for details.