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Center Stage

High kicks and controversy



“West Side Story,” Des Moines Playhouse Oct. 7-30. See www.dmplayhouse. com for more information

Almost as soon as “West Side Story” opened in 1957, it ascended to heaven. The angels included the musical maestro Leonard Bernstein, and songs like “Tonight” were instant classics. The Oscar-winning movie helped cement its landmark status, and this month’s revival at the Playhouse looks to put a new generation under its spell. Several players are still in their teens, and Director Karla Kash promises a production full of high kicks.

“We’ve got such awesome male dancers,” says Kash. “Some have ballet training.”

As she and her dance captain work through a challenging number, the stage around them bubbles with youthful spirit. Everyone’s busting a move.

“It’s just so eye-popping,” Kash says. “All these young men telling a story through movement.”

Prep Iowa

The show opens with a spectacle in which the Jets and Sharks tussle over a few blocks of turf. Its central event is even more of a stunner. During “The Rumble,” the knives come out, and two young men wind up dead.

The musical may be based on “Romeo & Juliet,” but what stirs up bad blood are the very American issues of immigration and race. The Jets are white, the Sharks Puerto Rican, and so, over the years, “West Side Story” has also attracted a lot of controversy. Conceived by Jewish New Yorkers, the show has sometimes left Latinos with mixed feelings. Even those who respect the work have objected to the white actors playing their roles. In the movie, the Puerto Rican heroine was played by Natalie Wood — a daughter of Russian immigrants — and voiced by the even-whiter Marni Nixon.

The Playhouse found a Puerto Rican, Zander Morales, to play the Shark leader, Bernardo. After two rounds of auditions, though, only one other Latino had won a role. John Viars, the theater’s executive director, issued a public apology, but Morales felt he could no longer participate.

In speaking of his decision, Morales talks about seeing Broadway’s 2009 revival in which Latinos played the appropriate roles and a number of songs were in Spanish.

“That was so empowering,” he says.

So he quit the show, followed by the others. At the recent Cloris Awards, a small group picketed against what they called “White Side Story.”

“We have 40,000 Hispanics in greater Des Moines,” Morales points out. “Community theater has got to represent the whole community.”

Indeed, a lot more people have joined the discussion. More than 200 showed up for a recent round-table talk in the East Village that was called by Viars, and a few comments got heated. A Latino in the audience, Alex Piedras, called for the Playhouse to halt production. Still, the ruling spirit in the hall — like that of this powerful show — was ultimately that of reconciliation.

“This issue can divide us, but we need it to leave us more unified and more inclusive,” said Rebecca Scholtec.


Overheard in the Lobby:  On Oct. 19 at the Temple Theater, Des Moines Performing Arts brings back Chicago’s Second City. The ensemble will present “Unelectable You,” a scathing take on American politics.


John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See


“West Side Story,”

Des Moines Playhouse
Oct. 7-30.

See for more information

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