By John Benson
When Ali Ewoldt was named as Maria in the touring production of the Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” which comes through Cleveland May 3 through 15 at the Palace Theatre, the veteran stage actress felt comfortable in the role. After all, she’d played the lead in an international tour of the Tony Award-winning musical written by legends Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
However, this all changed when Ewoldt had a chance to talk to Laurents, who consulted on this show, which features such classics of the American musical theater as “Something’s Coming,” “Tonight,” “America,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere.”
“The general concept of Maria is she is this young girl that things kind of passively happen to,” said Ewoldt, calling from Baltimore. “She’s very innocent. And in this production, Laurents — who wrote the script in 1957, directed the production that this is based off of and consulted on our production — had a different concept for Maria. He wanted her to be the smartest girl in the room. He wants her to play an active role in kind of controlling her fate. So that’s kind of reversing what I have been taught about what Maria was. It was definitely a challenge for me but a really exciting one because it’s a lot more fun to get to play her sense of humor and her intelligence.”
Ewoldt added that it was a magical and unique experience to actually get to work with the playwright from decades ago. More so, once she embraced the more confident Maria, she began to see scenes differently. Such as when Tony talks about going to the police, Maria takes control and tells him to stay with her.
From an acting standpoint, Ewoldt feels she’s always in control of her characters, which have ranged from a national tour of “Les Mis rables,” which brought her through Cleveland a few years ago, to Disney’s “Aladdin,” “The Fantasticks” and “Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Granted she’s been studying theater since she was a young girl, but Ewoldt feels it’s her academic background – she graduated from Yale University with a degree in psychology – that helps her define her characters.
Whereas she learned to study people and why they do the things they do, the idea of acting – learning why people do different things in different situations – isn’t too far removed. That’s why she fell in love with the role of Maria, who for decades has been a favorite of audiences.
“It’s the romance of the show,” Ewoldt said. “It’s Tony and Maria, star-crossed lovers who are fully committed to each other from the minute they see each other. As an audience member, that’s always exciting, either remembering all the love you’ve experienced in that way or wishing to kind of be that romantic and in love. Also, Maria gets to have a backbone in the end and be a strong woman. I think all of those kind of make her very appealing.”
Finally, something that makes “West Side Story” truly a classic is the fact its plot remains relevant in an ever-turbulent world. Ewoldt, who witnessed the phenomenon a few years ago as a cast member of an international tour, said this continues to inspire her today.
“What makes the show so amazing is that it’s very timeless and the themes continue to be relevant, which is of course unfortunate that the world hasn’t changed enough to make it where all people can love who they love openly and not be a conflict about that,” Ewoldt said. “On the international tour we performed in Tel Aviv, where the media told me a story about how an Israeli woman was in love with a Palestinian guy and basically it was ‘West Side Story’ all over again.
“That’s also why it’s really important to get the message across – love attempting at least to triumph over hate and people trying to understand each other. I think it makes me feel very lucky to get to do a piece that has such a wonderful message to it.”