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Wherefore Art Thou, Riff?

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Race relations: (l–r) Joseph J. Simeone, Kyle Harris, and German Santiago in "West Side Story."

Joseph J. Simeone gets Shakespearean in ‘West Side Story’
by Donalevan Maines

Joseph J. Simeone has gone ab-for-ab and cheek-to-cheek with Nick Adams and other stage gypsies with the most sculpted, nearly naked bodies in New York City for Broadway Bares. It’s the annual bawdy burlesque show that has raised millions for the charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

But Houston will see Simeone featured in the national tour based on the current revival of West Side Story that plays January 12–23 at the Hobby Center.

For this revival, winner of last year’s Grammy Award for best musical show album, Stephen Sondheim revisited the lyrics of this, his first Broadway outing. For sake of authenticity, he worked with Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) in translating some lyrics into Spanish for characters who are members of a Puerto Rican street gang, the Sharks.

Joseph J. Simeone

“I think it adds to the realism of the play,” says Simeone. “The Sharks are very recent immigrants and would most likely speak even more Spanish than is featured. However, I don’t speak a word of Spanish and still understand everything that is happening in the show.”

As Sondheim explains in his new book, Finishing the Hat (see sidebar), the notion of West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet transposed to New York City, 1957. He writes, “The Montagues and Capulets are two gangs, the Jets (white) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican). The lovers are Tony (Romeo) and Maria (Juliet), the sister of Bernardo (Paris), leader of the Sharks.”

Simeone says, “I play Riff, leader of the Jets, and best friend of Tony.” Riff is the equivalent of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.

When West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957, Elizabeth Taylor played Francisca, one of the Puerto Rican girls. No, not that Elizabeth Taylor, but it shows how Anglo actors were cast in Hispanic roles. There was also a Frank Green, Noel Schwartz, Art Smith, and Arch Johnson in the company. Natalie Wood played Maria in the 1961 movie.

“It was in the library of my grade school that I first saw the film version of West Side Story,” says Simeone. “As the years passed, the experience stayed with me and I was very excited to see the revival currently on Broadway which thrilled me anew. ?

“As much as I loved these productions, I did not look to them for inspiration while creating my Riff,” he adds. “I turned to the material itself, reading between the lines, relating Riff to the play’s main theme: love struggling against bigotry and violence. David Saint, the director, was amazing in helping everyone in the cast create a unique character with a purpose and stake in the drama, which enriches every aspect of stage life throughout the evening.”

Simeone says the show has a special appeal for the LGBT community. “Love struggling against all odds is a timeless aspect of the human condition,” he explains. “We can all thank Shakespeare for the best material in the world as a launching pad.”

Simeone “grew up happily” in Connecticut and graduated from The Juilliard School’s dance division in 2004. He’s danced with the prestigious Merce Cunningham Dance Company and American Ballet Theatre (ABT). “I think the theater community in New York City is relatively small and in my experience has a fun and inclusive vibe,” he says. “Especially the people working for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. I’ve danced in two seasons of Broadway Bares and will continue to proudly volunteer every chance I get. I encourage anyone to support this organization.”

Has he been to Houston before? “Never!” he exclaims. “And I can’t wait! I hope you guys are looking forward to welcoming us!”

Regarding the tour, he adds, “I love it. We have an incredible cast that is not only dedicated and talented but also so much fun off the clock! We know how to have a good time and already accrued some unforgettable moments!”

Marital status?

“I am single,” he says, “but list my contact info and maybe I’ll get lucky!”

Like I say, Simeone will be in town from January 12 until the tour departs on January 23. That’s just a few days before Simeone’s next birthday.

West Side Story
Presented by Broadway Across America
January 12–23
Hobby Center, 800 Bagby
Tickets: $35.80–$88.30
Box Office: 713/315-2525
thehobbycenter.org

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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