Shereen Pimentel wants 2020 audiences to see a different side to West Side Story’s Maria. With director Ivo van Hove, the star adds a layer of determination and agency to the often-passive character, first seen on Broadway in 1957. “She knows exactly what she wants and has this strong spine,” Pimentel says of the newest incarnation of one of Broadway’s quintessential ingénues. For example, Pimentel’s Maria doesn’t stand idly by during the “Dance at the Gym” sequence anymore. Now, Maria immediately joins in on the fun at her first American dance. “She’s in awe,” Pimentel says. “Then she’s like, ‘I’m going to dance with everyone else—I want that full experience.’”
Working with music director Alexander Gemignani, Pimentel developed a stronger voice, too. In the “Tonight Quintet,” the character doesn’t wistfully sing, “Oh moon, grow bright”—she demands it to shine. “I get to hold the intensity and that’s fun to play with,” the star says.
If this Maria has a new strength and command, that’s partly because Pimentel exhibits those qualities so effortlessly in her own life. At eight, Pimentel told her parents she wanted to be a stage performer. Less than a year later, she made her Broadway debut as Young Nala in The Lion King and spent years honing her craft. Even now, as Pimentel stars on Broadway she’s finishing her senior year at The Juilliard School.
And though she’s never experienced love-at-first-sight as Maria has with Tony, she and co-star Isaac Powell did hit it off right away, going out for ramen and waffles and then trying to sneak backstage at the Broadway Theatre before their show’s marquee was even up.
Pimentel says she’s glad they connected instantly because this radical new revival—complete with choreography from Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker replacing the beloved Jerome Robbins original, and cuts to the score that include “I Feel Pretty”—initially jarred the performers, too. Nevertheless, she promises that what has always made audiences fall in love with West Side Story will still be there—just explored in a new light.
The most important thing for Pimentel is that, like her new Maria, van Hove’s West Side Story demands audiences take a look at the ways a musical from the Golden Age still mirrors society today.
“When you’re trying to gain a place in the world and protect your family, you can create a lot of chaos and trauma, and everyone is sort of complicit in that,” says Pimentel. “Even if it’s not the life you’ve lived, you might’ve seen or watched it. We can’t always fix everything for everybody, but we can try to help.”
Styled by Greg Dassonville of DassonVogue Styling (Casual: Walter Baker, SJP Collection, and Versani Jewelry; Evening: Nicole Bakti X Aida and Versani Jewelry