Chino is a best friend, singer, dancer, comedian and loyal member of Puerto Rican gang the Sharks in UC Irvine’s production of “West Side Story.” He is also a fourth-year undergraduate student double- majoring in multicultural studies and drama. He is a performer and a student; his name is Chino and Wes Gabrillo. Despite popular opinion, Chino does not just exist within the confines of stage right and stage left. He is respected, honored and rebuilt into a unique person that Wes relives and recounts every day.
And it isn’t just Gabrillo. There are 48 cast members who comprise this year’s production of the Broadway musical. Each of these students must understand one thing: without any knowledge of who these characters are or how their lives play out, these roles must be transformed into emotional, vulnerable and compelling people. This task proves to be more difficult than one can imagine. Each person in the cast must have “triple threat” qualities — singing, dancing and acting — to even be considered for the show.
Once they were cast, it was highly recommended that each student get to know his or her character on a personal level. In fact, director Eli Simon encourages character development so much so that during rehearsals, the two gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, are encouraged to avoid each other. This allows the rivalry to brew and become a very genuine essence in the studio, eventually translating through each person’s performance on stage.
Although production members provide historical context and background of the play for the cast, the real development goes beyond the doors of the studio. Gabrillo, who plays a Puerto Rican gang member and best friend to leader Bernardo, understands Chino on more levels than one. “If you look at our script, our characters do not have last names. It is only their first name, maybe even just their nickname. It’s our responsibility to give them a last name by learning, studying and living their lives on and off stage,” Gabrillo said.
Perhaps Gabrillo’s true understanding of his character stems from his personal connection to the original Chino. After doing research on his character, Gabrillo realized that Jose De Vega, the original Chino of the 1959 Broadway musical and film adaptation, was more than just an actor. He was a half Colombian, half-Filipino actor who advocated for change in the arts and particularly for the under-represented Asian- American community of artists. “This really touched me,” Gabrillo said. “Not only am I Filipino but I, too, want to take that direction. I don’t want to do art for ‘art’s sake.’ I want to use it in a way to reach out to communities that I identify with and may not directly identify with to have their voices heard and their self-determination served.”
However, character connectivity is not the only work that goes into a production. With the combination of rehearsals and pressure to perform, there are many physical, emotional and mental demands that exist for the cast. Even though Chino doesn’t dance as much as others, Gabrillo admits that the choreographer makes the cast work very hard. And with the high level of professionalism held by the Claire Trevor School of Arts, it is absolutely important to stay focused and always give 100 percent no matter how daunting the task ahead may seem.
“I think the most mentally demanding aspect of it all is the retention of the entire rehearsal process. To do it over and over again with the same level of energy is difficult, but it has to be done,” Gabrillo said.
In addition, as opening night approaches, the nervous butterflies begin to settle in. The cast will soon move their rehearsals from the studio to Barclay Theater where the show will play, and when that happens, everything will have to be kicked up: vocals, acting, dancing, lighting, orchestra … the list goes on.
Despite the hard work, the challenges and the long nights of research, the end result makes it that much more rewarding. More important than the personal performances of the actors and actresses is the audience’s connection, Gabrillo mentioned. “Through our hard work,” he said, “the audience will not just see ‘acting.’ ” In fact, the audience will step into the world of the Sharks and the Jets and find each character in its natural, organic and truest form. Starting Nov. 14 at the Irvine Barclay Theater, every person of every scene will emotionally compel and invite the audience to connect, relive and retell the story to others.