Morgantown Woman Stars in ‘West Side Story’

Some very proud family and friends will be in the audience when MaryJoanna Grisso steps on the stage as Maria in “West Side Story” at the Capitol Theatre on Monday.

The classic musical is the Broadway at the Capitol 2012-13 season opener.

Grisso grew up in Morgantown and graduated from West Virginia University where she studied vocal performance and theater.

So it will be a short drive for her parents, Maria and John Grisso, now of Pittsburgh, and her W.Va. friends and relatives to see one of the early performances of the show – although her mom did make the drive to Ashland, Ky., for the first performance in previews on Oct. 25.

At the end of high school, Grisso said she thought she’d be thrilled to leave her home state and “take on the world.” But, she’s grateful she decided to stay in Morgantown, close to family. In fact, because the vocal and theater departments at WVU are small, she had lots of opportunities to shine.

While at WVU, she played Sarah Brown in “Guys and Dolls,” Hope Caldwell in “Urinetown” and Lucy in the comic opera, “The Telephone.”

Upon graduation, she headed to New York City, and got a job at Lululemon Athletica, a store where athletic apparel is sold. “They promote soul searching and physical health,” as well, Grisso said, “which was good for me.”

She also worked at the Church of St. Francis Assisi in Herald Square singing in the choir and cantering. And of course, she auditioned whenever she could.

Auditions paid off for her when she landed the role as Gingy in the Dreamworks production of “Shrecktacular.” She auditioned for the role in New York, but the job was a three-month stint at Opryland in Nashville.

“I came back to the city and decided I wasn’t going to go back to my job. I gave myself two months,” she said, spending her energy on voice and dance lessons and auditions.

She was just about to look for a “real job” again, when she auditioned for “West Side Story.”

“It was the last audition I could do before going back to work,” she said. “I went to the open call. There were 100 girls there for the roles of Anita and Maria.” She said she arrived at 7 a.m. and waited until 2 p.m. for her audition. By that time, the casting director had gone, and she auditioned for the assistant casting director. The assistant then called the casting director to come back in to hear her.

It was during the second or third callback that they brought in one of the actors being considered for the role of Tony, Addison Reid Coe.

“We connected. We giggled and laughed. There was such great stage chemistry. … It just worked,” she said.

There were five callbacks, she said, noting she’d get home from one, and have a voicemail to come back the next day to perform for the director or for the producer.

“It was a very new experience. I hadn’t had that many callbacks in New York, so this was pretty amazing.”

From the open call to being cast, she waited about a month, she said. In fact, she had gone back to work, securing a job as a nanny and was hired to sing for weddings.

“Then I got the offer,” she said. And Coe got the part of Tony.

“There were many tears of joy!” she recalled.

“West Side Story” was one of the first shows her music-teacher mom took her to when she was little.

“I love the part. It’s a role I’ve dreamt of playing,” she said.

Also on her list of roles she aspires to play are Christine from “Phantom of the Opera,” Clara in “A Light in the Piazza,” Cosette in “Les Miserables” and Glinda in “Wicked.”

About Maria, Grisso said, “(She’s) a beautiful character. She is very strong and believes in love more than anything. I don’t think she sees sides, or cultures being separate. She just sees people.”

Grisso noted that this performance is the new, revised show, in which about 10 percent of the dialogue is in Spanish. While she doesn’t speak Spanish, having studied opera, she’s very familiar with dialect and foreign language. The Spanish dialogue, she noted, adds a lot of flavor to the show and makes it more authentic.

Opening night was Oct. 29 in Elmyra, N.Y., and the tour continues through July.

“I’m performing with really talented people who will be my family for the next 10 months.”

Being on tour, which is a very new experience to her, is “tough.” But, she said, “so far so good!”

“You have to stay healthy, watch what you eat. Your body can get worn out. You have to drink lots of water.

“But it’s an amazing way to see the country. I haven’t been out west; I’m looking forward to that,” she said.

Before heading out for rehearsals early in October, her “wonderful mother” took her shopping to get food. “I had one suitcase with clothes and one with vitamins and teas and energy bars.”

While she expects around 15 or so supporters at the Capitol, she said her family, friends and former teachers already have bought about 70 tickets for the Morgantown performance set for January.

Grisso pointed out a couple of connections she has with the area. She’s excited to be performing at the Capitol Theatre, the same stage where her boyfriend, Martins Ferry native Matt Webster, had his first performance as a little boy in the Music Hall Players’ production of “The King and I.” Webster, also a WVU graduate, lives in New York City where he is an actor and has had success as a playwright.

Grisso said she also recalls performing with the Morgantown High School band as a dancer on one very cold day when the team played Wheeling Park High School at Wheeling Island Stadium.

It may be a chilly November day when she comes back to the Ohio Valley, but Grisso can expect a warm welcome from her supporters.