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Baayork Lee Fulfills Bucket List With Pittsburgh CLO’s ‘West Side Story’

Chemistry Between Stars Sabina Colazzo and Spencer LaRue Was Evident From the Start

By SHARON EBERSON

The choices were whittled to three Tony’s and three Maria’s, and director Baayork Lee, who knows a thing or two about auditions, heard something that solidified the choice of Sabina Colazzo and Spencer LaRue as her West Side Story stars.

The sound coming from the huddled duo was giggling.

“We went, ‘Those are the two. That’s Romeo and Juliet.’ It was just so obvious,” said Lee, the Tony-winning original cast member of A Chorus Line, musical theater’s acclaimed behind-the-scenes peek into auditions.

Pittsburgh CLO’s Tony and Maria in the 2024 production of West Side Story:
Spencer LaRue and Sabina Colazzo.

Lee is the official keeper of the flame for A Chorus Line, which is fast approaching its 50th anniversary. She has directed or restaged that show for PCLO four times, most recently in 2022, and was at the helm of the company’s post-pandemic, 75th-anniversary Broadway Musical Celebration at Heinz Field.

The PCLO show at the Benedum Center is her first time overseeing West Side Story, checking off a bucket list item twice – the production and its stars will move on to Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre in August.

Colazzo and LaRue, making their Pittsburgh stage debuts, are both University of Michigan alumni, with many mutual friends. He was a freshman when she was a senior, which meant they never shared the stage – although they did work on the same production. 

“She was doing Light in the Piazza when I was a freshman, and I was the spot op, so I was literally the light in the piazza, shining down on her,” LaRue recalled, sitting beside his co-star during a lunch break in PCLO’s brutally quick rehearsal process.

While Colazzo has played Maria professionally three times before, one a concert version, her costar last played Tony in his Florida high school production. In college, “I was the dancer,” LaRue said of playing to what he considered to be his strength. Then for two years, he could be seen on Broadway in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, with no singing or dancing. 

When it was done, LaRue was missing musical theater and dancing, which of course is a big part of West Side Story, with the PCLO production sticking closely to the original Jerome Robbins choreography. He also had taken voice lessons when he auditioned to play the volatile gang member Action, a member of the Jets, while also covering the part of Tony.

LaRue sang Maria in his audition, “and I guess they liked it,” he said. “Now here I am, and I’m falling back in love with my voice and back in love with musical theater, and I think this is just the perfect show. I’ve always dreamed of working at CLO, and so getting to do this show, here with my friend from school and getting to rebuild that bond, it’s just kind of full circle. It’s really, really special.”

For Colazzo, Maria is the ultimate musical theater role, “and I will do it as long as they let me.” 

Her strong connection to Maria comes from growing up in Puerto Rico and migrating to the mainland at 18, much like her character. 

Representation in ‘West Side Story,’ and Why it Matters

With each production and director, Colazzo’s version of Maria has evolved – in Pittsburgh, we will see a more fiery version of the character.

“I have played her a little bit more meek in the past, and then it occurred to me that a meek person wouldn’t do what Maria does. I wouldn’t be falling in love with the ‘other,’ if I was that shy and reserved,” Colazzo said.

Colazzo has thought hard to make sense of Maria’s strong attraction to Tony, when he represents the enemy to her Puerto Rican community, and her brother’s Sharks, in particular.

“In my backstory, she has been educated at a higher level because she’s the princess of the family. She has been educated in English for longer before she came to New York … and it is because of that that she doesn’t see him as different from her, that she feels she and Tony are just one and the same.”

La Rue has similarly delved into what makes Tony tick.

“Tony for me is this kid who’s found a family and brotherhood with Riff. They’ve grown up together and created the Jets out of necessity and the need to feel at home when you don’t really have a stable physical home, and they kind of run these streets just because they have to, and they’re very protective of this thing they’ve created.”

While Riff remains committed to the gang and a turf war with the Sharks, Tony sees a way out, working with Doc (Pittsburgh’s Ken Bolden).

“Tony sees a world where there doesn’t have to be any fighting and everybody can coexist, and that’s when he meets Maria, and she symbolizes all that for him,” LaRue said. 

For Lee, who has traveled worldwide through her connection to A Chorus Line, bequeathed to her by creator Michael Bennett, West Side Story has long been on her “must” list.

Director, actor and choreographer Lee was honored with the 2017 Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award, presented annually to a member of the theater community “who has made a substantial contribution of volunteered time and effort on behalf of one or more humanitarian, social service or charitable organizations.” (Billy Porter is the 2024 recipient.) 

She is the founder of National Asian Artists Project, a community of artists, educators and professionals who work to showcase the work of Asian-American theater artists, including productions of musical theater staples such as Oklahoma!, Carousel, Hello, Dolly! and Oliver! with all Asian-American casts.

“I get a chance to do all the classics, but I never dreamed that I would be doing West Side Story or Cats,” Lee said.

She brings up both in the same breath, because Lee believes the original choreography is a key to both shows. 

“You cannot not do Cats without the Jellicle Ball, or not do the opening of West Side Story,” she said. 

For help with that, she has by her side associate director-choreographer Jacob Brent, best known for his portrayal of Mr. Mistoffelees in the Broadway, London and video productions of Cats, and dance captain David Grindrod.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to get someone who’s done it. … I can’t just start making up steps [to the song] America, because you just can’t. And so I’m very pleased that we also got fantastic dancers. Oh my goodness, this cast!”

Behind the scenes, Tome Cousin is the intimacy coordinator and Randy Kovitz, fight director. Among the familiar cast members to Pittsburgh CLO audiences are Allan Snyder, J. Alex Noble and Mathew Fedorek, and a newcomer to the company but not local stages is Dixie Surewood.

LaRue, moments before the first full run-through of the show’s first act, had been marveling at his castmates during a rehearsal of the number Cool. You know the one, with Riff trying to calm his Jets before the rumble: “Boy, boy, crazy boy, Get cool, boy! …” The lyrics are the first the then 27-year-old Stephen Sondheim wrote while workiing with composer Leonard Bernstein.

“I got chills watching it,” he said. “It’s like aggressive, athletic dance, and I was crying and I was like, ‘Why am I crying at this moment?’ I think that was my first time seeing the original choreography done by classically trained dancers to a 100% level, and it was 6 feet in front of me, and I was just overwhelmed. It was so raw and beautiful.”

LaRue and Colazzo chalk up their own chemistry to having known each other through school and mutual friends, and trusting that, “Yeah, we both know what we’re doing,” he said.

They also share the love of a musical that, after 67 years, continues to inspire revivals and new interpretations. In Pittsburgh CLO’s 78-year history, this will be its eighth turn at West Side Story, with the previous version in 2008, with Broadway actors Max von Essen as Tony and Ali Ewoldt as Maria.

The musical is at once classical and contemporary, with themes of prejudice and urban unrest that persist today. 

“I think it fits the definition of musical theater perfectly,” Colazzo said. “It’s the combination of acting, singing and dancing, meshing together to tell a story, and for people to feel things. And then on top of that, you’re putting a, not even an American story, a worldwide story … it truly is timeless. I think it’s one of those shows that we could set it in 2024, completely, clothing and everything, and it will still work.”

TICKETS AND DETAILS

Pittsburgh CLO’s production of West Side Story runs June 11-16, 2024, at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Tickets: visit or call 412-456-6666.