West Side Story opens Tuesday at Orpheum West Side Story’s Sharks are killers, says Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original book and directed the latest revival of Leonard Bernstein’s classic musical. That means German Santiago, as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, plays one tough Puerto Rican. Born in Mexico City and raised in Houston, playing a killer Shark wasn’t what his mother had in mind when she called him “my little artist.” And audiences aren’t likely to think of him as momma’s boy when he rumbles with the Jets at the Orpheum Theater, Oct. 19-24. But he has his mother to thank for the language skills required by this bilingual version of the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents creation. And he thanks Laurents, now 93, for what Santiago calls “the blessing” of this production with its new, hard-nosed gangs. If the story isn’t fresh in your mind, recall that Bernardo is also the brother of Maria who falls in love with Tony, a former Jet. His girlfriend is Anita — think Chita Rivera in the movie singing “America.” Yes, Bernardo speaks some Spanish, but it’s 88 percent English and when he talks Puerto Rican (different than his Mexico City Español) to Anita, she responds in English. When Maria sings, “I Feel Pretty,” in Spanish, she repeats it in English. But most audiences can follow Bernardo when he says, “Bueno, bueno, verdad” before Anita sings, “Okay by me in America.” Growing up in Houston from age 6, “Spanish was my first language, so they put me back in first grade when I was supposed to be in second. But I learned to be fluent in English in three months and then skipped a grade. He credits his mother for his being bilingual. “She always spoke Spanish at home and I always spoke English in school.” Santiago agrees with Laurents who says having the Puerto Rican characters sometimes sing and speak in Spanish “not only gives them more authenticity, but reflects the sounds of New York City today.” Laurents and David Saint, his associate director on Broadway and now director on tour, insist on the tougher gang image from the beginning prologue which features brief violent encounters between the Sharks and Jets protecting their territory. “They emphasized the back story,” Santiago says, “especially the idea that they were very protective of even a small piece of their territory.” And he agrees they all have “the potential to be killers.” Bernardo is in the middle of the most violent moments of this modern tragedy. “It’s definitely a very physical role,” and averaging eight shows a week means Santiago can keep in shape without working out. “But I’m always hungry,” even with a big meal before the show and snacks after. “The dance at the gym is a huge number.” That’s when they yell, “Mambo, mambo,” and Bernardo is showcased in the aggressively competitive dancing by both gangs. His rival leader, Joseph Simeone as Riff, is described in the show’s bio sketches as “a seasoned concert dancer” with a Juilliard background. Santiago, who studied musical theater at Sam Houston State, considers himself an actor with dance and vocal experience. He played the title role in Disney’s Aladdin, a Music Spectacular. But he views this as more than just another role. “It’s a dream come true to be Bernardo in one of the best musicals of all time and to be able to work with the man (Laurents) who started it all. I don’t know how I’ll be able to top this one.” Maybe that will happen in January. Then his family, the “Mi familia” he thanks in program notes, his mother and two older brothers, “will see us in Houston.” They won’t see him looking pretty, but cut, bruised and roughed up. The gangs are no Mr. Nice Guys these days. West Side Story runs Oct. 19-24, Tues.-Wed. 7:30 p.m., Thurs. 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. and Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m. at the Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St. Tickets, starting at $25, are available at the Holland Performing Arts Center, at TicketOmaha.com or 345.0606.

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