Ready to rumble; `West Side Story' headed to Hanover for five shows.
In musical terms, a riff can be a short cluster of notes that may be heard just once but which could also get repeated in a piece to often telling effect.
In the musical "West Side Story" the character Riff is a cluster of emotions whose untimely departure from the action at the end of the first act foretells greater tragedy to come.
"It's a very intense role to play," said Theo Lencicki, who is Riff in the Broadway touring production of "West Side Story" that comes to The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts for five performances beginning 8 p.m. Friday. "He's angsty and abandoned, but I also feel there's a softer side to him."
Riff is the headstrong leader of the Jets, one of two rival gangs in the 1957 Sondheim-Bernstein musical that is a Romeo-and-Juliet-style story set in New York City. In this case the doomed lovers are Tony, a young man affiliated with the Jets, and Maria, whose Hispanic friends and brother are members of the Sharks gang.
"When you're a Jet/You're a Jet all the way/From your first cigarette/To your last dyin' day," sing Riff and the gang, a sentiment that proves to be more accurate than Riff might realize.
But the music also has toughness and excitement. Elsewhere, "West Side Story" has two of the most beautiful songs ever written in the great American songbook ("Maria" and "Somewhere"), and who can resist the urge to dance to "America"?
The show was revived on Broadway in 2009 (selling over a million tickets) and a new national tour began in October 2011. The current incarnation of the tour was put together in New York City in September and travels nationwide at least through June.
"The show is going absolutely wonderfully," the friendly-sounding Lencicki said during a telephone interview from North Charleston, S.C., where "West Side Story" was playing for a couple of days. "The audiences are receiving it very well."
Asked if the story is till relevant, Lencicki said one only has to look at the news.
"Absolutely. The main theme is love not being able to survive in a world of hate." The show can both entertain and educate, he said.
"It's not your happy-go-lucky musical where people are dancing in the aisles. It has a message that has a clear and sincere meaning." At the same time, "There are also beautiful melodies and enough life to find hope."
"West Side Story" is also renowned for the physicality of its movement and the sharp original choreography by Jerome Robbins. As the leader of the Jets, Riff is in almost constant motion throughout Act One. "The show is very intense on the body. Act One is nonstop for me," Lencicki said.
But then ...
Some family and friends who have gone to see "West Side Story" and (Lencicki) and are not too familiar with the details of the story have been surprised by what happens at the end of Act One, he said. "It takes some people by surprise."
The touring production has a massage therapist traveling on the road with the cast. Lencicki does body maintenance and exercises after his exit. One of the challenges facing an actor/singer/dancer is "just keeping up," he said.
It's a life that Lencicki could scarcely have envisioned growing up in Scranton, Pa., prior to going to high school. His main recreational riffs were baseball and basketball, he said.
"At high school I got more opportunities to explore." These included the performing arts, and dance in particular. While somewhat of a late starter when it came to dancing, Lencicki was soon making all the right moves. "I spiraled into a whirlwind of attending performing arts camps. All the hard work has paid off," he said.
At one summer camp, the Arts Alive Institute in Scranton, he found himself "surrounded by so many professional artists it gave me an opportunity to experience the performing arts on a level that wasn't high school. It inspired me to up my game. Six years later I came back as a faculty member. So I was able to pass that on."
In between he had graduated from Penn State University with a degree in theater and dance.
Prior to making the move to New York City to seek his fortune as a performer, Lencicki took an eight month detour as a singer/dancer on board the Norwegian Sun as it cruised off South America. Once in New York, he landed parts in touring shows in quick succession and has continued to see the world as a result. A production of "A Chorus Line" took him to Japan. In "Hairspray" he got to see Worcester for the first time when the tour came to the Hanover Theatre. He has also toured with "Young Frankenstein."
"I was pretty lucky," he said about continuing to get cast.
For "West Side Story" he worked in rehearsals with the people who were responsible for the Broadway revival. Meanwhile, "The cast is great." And he likes the touring life. "I do. I have a lot of friends and family spread out around the country."
As for what will happen the book will finally close on "West Side Story," Lencicki said "Who knows? Back to the city. Dance classes. Voice lessons."
In the longer term, does he see himself teaching, since he has already some experience with that at Arts Alive?
"That seems to be the progression once the body has had enough," he replied.
But not yet. There is plenty of riffing (and Riff) on the immediate theatrical horizon. After the North Charleston shows, there would be two in Columbia, S.C. Then everyone got four days off for Christmas. But on Dec. 26 and 27 Lencicki and his fellow cast and crew will be in Burlington, Vt. The next day, the latest version "West Side Story" opens the first chapter of its run here.
"West Side Story"
Where: The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts, 2 Southbridge St., Worcester
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 28, 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 29, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Dec. 30
How much: $39-$69. (877) 571-7469; www.thehanovertheater.org
CUTLINE: (1) A scene from "West Side Story," which opens Friday in Worcester. Theo Lencicki, below, portrays Riff in the production. (2) Theo Lencicki
PHOTOG: (1) SUBMITTED BY CAROL ROSEGG