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Ryukus University Students Bring "West Side Story" to the East

By: Jena Maddalino

Date Posted: 2000-01-28

Star-crossed lovers Marie (Mina Tome) and Tony (Kohei Yamazato) lit up the stage last Saturday night in an all-English production of "West Side Story." The popular American musical, based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, was performed by English, British, European and English Education Majors from the University of the Ryukus at the Ashibina Hall, situated on the third floor of Korinza Mall. The hall was packed with both Americans and Japanese, leaving only standing room for any latecomers.

Every year, Sophomore English majors at the University stage a play entirely in English. This year’s incredible performance of "West Side Story" marked their 16th annual play in English. A more modern version of the Shakespeare classic, originally conceived by Jerome Robbins in the 1950’s with music composed by Leonard Bernstein, the love story is set in New York City, amidst a turf-war that places Marie and Tony on opposite sides of the fence.

Despite their lack of big financial resources and time, and facing the monumental task of performing a famous musical piece in a nonnative language, the University students pulled off a dynamic stage performance of a play filled with linguistic variances from traditional English to Spanish-accented English. The students performed the entire play, including the musical portions, without altering the original lines or difficult language.

Many in the audience, who have seen American performances of "West Side Story," agreed that the students tackled the language of the play without compromising its integrity and true meaning. “I was impressed with the fact that the entire show was done in English, including the musical portions… they didn’t compromise the original content of the play to make it easier to perform," Alberto Shiroma, of the famous Okinawan Latin band the Diamantes, said of the production.

The students also had to tackle some cultural difficulties stemming from some typical scenes of physical affection in the American musical; it is known that public displays of affection are not a cultural norm in Japan. “The students had a difficult time at first with touching each other, even putting an arm around each other,” Ms. Gaylene Levesuque, an English Professor at the University said. “They have been very enthusiastic about this performance, rehearsing the difficult scenes despite the cultural barriers.”

The students started rehearsing the play in October of 1999, and their practice paid off with a great act that also gave evidence of their English language abilities. Kohei Yamazato, playing the part of Tony, was very enthusiastic about the performance. “This is the very first time I have performed an in American musical,” he said. Yamazato gave the audience a stirring performance with his near-perfect pronunciation and his incredible musical talent. Yamazato plans to continue on to graduate school in the United States after he graduates from the Ryukus University.

The entire play, including the music and choreography was planned and directed by the students themselves. Most importantly, the students were able to stage the production without any important financial backing. They relied on each other and their advisors to make the musical a success.

Their efforts culminated in a breathtaking performance that left the whole hall filled with emotion and satisfaction. Mina Tome (Maria) and Mina Ohama (Anita) cried tears of happiness after the show had ended, bringing many in the audience to tears as well. “This was the only night on which we were able to perform the musical…" said Mina Ohama, trying to fight back her tears. "we would like to perform it again.”

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