(May 21, 2007)

The Big Musical in the Big House

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

After the performance of "West Side Story," cast members crouched on the edge of the stage as a crush of well-wishers reached up to offer congratulations.

Tony was beaming. Riff was accepting high-fives. Bernardo was shaking hands.

It was the same euphoric scene replayed after school or community-theater performances - except for the uniformed guards who were there to keep the cast from leaving the stage.

Welcome to "West Side Story" inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility, performed earlier this month by 50 male inmates - and five volunteer actresses - at the maximum-security prison in Ossining.

Yes, they sing at Sing Sing.

The production, the 18th from the prison's 10-year-old Rehabilitation Through the Arts program, was also its first full-fledged musical. It was intended as a retirement present for Brian Fischer, who planned to step down in June as Sing Sing's superintendent until Gov. Eliot Spitzer tapped him to head all of the state's prisons.

Fischer and 228 guests saw a show whose venue, the prison auditorium, gave it a different feel.

Fifty years ago, when Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics to "Gee, Officer Krupke," he couldn't have imagined they'd resonate so loudly in 2007, sung by convicted burglars and murderers:

"There is good

There is good

There is untapped good

Like inside the worst of us is good."

That could well be the theme song of the program started 10 years ago by Katherine Vockins, a former marketing executive from Katonah.

"Some of these men have never had an honest job," Vockins said. "They don't set goals. They don't understand what it means to solve problems in a group setting. Those are all issues that happen in the community of theater.

"You have to set goals, they have to be reachable. You have to work with people you don't like, that's the same as it is on the outside. That all happens through the work we do."

Director Peter Barbieri Jr. said the obstacles to staging "West Side Story" inside a maximum-security prison were considerable, even when it came to props.

"You can't have a fake gun in a prison," he said. "I had to make a fake gun that had to be approved by the director of security. The switchblades, which are actually combs, are numbered and locked up every night."

If props and security were obstacles, actresses were not.

Maria was played by Elizabeth Speck, who traveled from Brooklyn for rehearsals. Anita was played by Kim Breden, an actress from Yonkers who also served as the show's musical director. Amina Henry of Manhattan and Linda Atkinson of Hastings were also enlisted, as was Vockins.

"It is like having 30 brothers," Breden said. "These guys are so dedicated, committed. They have such courage and such integrity and they have my back, boy. I feel completely safe."

Still, there were concessions made to the surroundings.

"West Side Story" has a rape scene - when Anita goes to warn Tony and she's attacked by the Jets. At Sing Sing, it was not called the rape scene. It was "the taunting scene."

Barbieri staged it slowly and without emotion first, and then layered on the feelings the Jets had to summon to give it the air of menace it required.

Breden recalled: "Each one of the guys, in their own way, came up to me and said, 'Kim, we're just gonna be acting. It's gonna sound really loud, it's gonna be kinda scary, but don't worry. We gotcha covered.'"

Vockins said one of the byproducts of the program is trust. "I'm more concerned on a subway platform in New York than I am inside Sing Sing with our guys," she said.

Philip Miller, who played Baby John, said he was uneasy about the taunting scene. It was not difficult physically, he said - the other Jets force Baby John onto Anita - but Miller was still conflicted.

"That's not in my personality at all, to force myself on a woman," he said. "(Breden) had to tell me 'You have to make it look real. You have to grab me.' That was just out of my character."

Miller didn't know "West Side Story" before being cast, but "I was very familiar with 'Romeo and Juliet,' because it's one of my favorite plays," he said. "I love Shakespeare. And the way they adapted it to the city and the gangs it seemed quite appropriate for contemporary times, even though it was made way back when."

Barbieri agreed.

"'West Side Story" speaks to their situation, with the violence and racism," he said. "But they bring an understanding to the piece that I don't think I could ever get as a director on the outside."

There were three shows for the inmates, then the performance for Fischer. Inmate audiences are typically rowdy - cast members liken them to the raucous "Showtime at the Apollo" - but Barbieri said the crowds were respectful for this show.

"What's interesting for me is watching the inmate population watch them and be moved by the story and by the message," the director said.

He said he's seen his cast moved, too.

"When they're on stage, they're not in jail anymore," he said. "It gives them a sense of freedom and ownership that they don't get anywhere else in this place. Everybody here says no to them. We don't say no to them. We say yes. The reason they can do it is that no one ever told them they couldn't."

The road to opening night

When Vockins learned Fischer was leaving, she asked Barbieri if a musical - something the superintendent always wanted them to do - was possible. The director huddled with Breden to find a show to adapt, one with few female roles.

With "West Side Story," they could get rid of the Jets girls, they could cut the Shark girls to two. They needed a Maria and an Anita. They needed an Anybodies, the tomboy who wants to be a Jet.

"Four, maybe five girls? We could do that," said Breden.

In December, Breden turned to the music.

"The first time we heard them sing as a group, it was the sound of every possible note and pitch coming at a thousand miles an hour," Breden said, screaming to recreate the moment.

"We did an awful lot of vocal exercises, getting them to listen to each other and modulate their voices in tune with each other. It's problem-solving without even words. It's amazing."

"We taught them a verse of 'Gee, Officer Krupke' and the entire song 'Maria' - figuring that if we didn't have a man who could sing the part of Tony, we wouldn't have a show," Breden said.

At the final workshop, 35 men auditioned for the show and Johnny Hincapie was cast as Tony. He said his last performance on stage was as a mouse in kindergarten.

"To be honest with you, I really didn't expect to get any role at all," Hincapie said. "I thought I was just going to assist RTA with the sound or being behind the scenes.

"Even though I don't consider myself a singer, they saw something in me and gave me the role."

Hincapie faced a steering committee of inmates who asked him what he could bring to the program. What he wasn't asked was why he was in Sing Sing.

"They don't interview you for what crimes you committed," said Hincapie, who is serving 25-years-to-life as an accomplice in the high-profile 1990 stabbing of Utah tourist Brian Watkins.

Vockins said the program faces the future, not the past. "We believe that the men who are here are trying to change their lives," she said. "They are not their mistakes. They made horrific mistakes, but the men are not their mistakes."

Tony is an optimistic character, a man full of hope, something Hincapie said is not hard to conjure up, even inside.

"I was brought up by a beautiful family. My family instilled a lot of love and a lot of hope," he said. "Although I'm incarcerated, I always have a lot of faith regardless of what I do."

Clarence Maclin, "Divine Eye" to his friends, is on the steering committee. He says the men leave their differences at the door when they enter RTA.

"It forces us to grow," he said. "You can't hold on to petty animosity once you've created something beautiful. At the end of the production, the things we had against each other seem so small and trivial that it doesn't even matter anymore."

Not everyone gets in. "We take the pulse of the guys and what brought them to us," said Maclin. "It can't be because of the women and it can't be anything other than you have a profound love for what we do."

Sing Sing has the biggest and oldest of four Rehabilitation Through the Arts programs. Others are at Green Haven in Stormville -another maximum-security prison - and at the medium-security Fishkill and Woodburne prisons.

Improv and the real world

Of the 1,761 men at Sing Sing, about 50 inmates were involved with "West Side Story," on stage and behind the scenes handling sound, lights, set-building, and painting the backdrop. That number is considerably higher than the core group of 25 men who are regularly part of the RTA workshops, which range from play writing to scene-study to improvisation.

A new improvisation program this summer will help prisoners prepare to go home. They'll use role-playing exercises - imagining a situation and how they'd react and apply decision-making and problem-solving - to get ready for the outside world.

"We'll look at the issues that men will be dealing with when they get home: relationships with families, relationships with employers," Vockins said.

"It's not about putting on a performance," said Vockins. "It's about going through the program, going to the workshops and doing the work."

(One celebrated charter member of the group, David Wayne, was released from Sing Sing and appeared on "Law & Order" before being re-arrested in December in a string of robberies. Vockins said Wayne failed because he pursued acting without a backup plan and hadn't committed to putting his past behind him.)

Fischer, now in a position in Albany to set prison policy, is a program champion.

"What you see on the stage here is entertainment," he told the audience before the final show. "What I see is rehabilitation. This changes them and they all leave a little more mature, a little more honest."

"We can't forget the victims," he said in an earlier interview. "But the reality is that every one of the guys (in the show) is going to go home. Would you rather they go home rehabilitated or go back home angry? There's the investment. As a society, we need to invest our energy in making them better people because they're going to go home.

"They did wrong. They admit it. Their punishment is going to jail, not being punished in jail. That's an important factor."

RTA accepts no funding from the state. "Most of it is just sweat and tears from the inmates and the volunteers," Fischer said.

Luis Marshall, Fischer's successor at Sing Sing, said the program "definitely plays a part in stabilizing the community."

Leo Larrea has been at Sing Sing for 18 years. He said the program has helped him change his way of thinking and gain patience.

Even with more than six hours of rehearsal a day - four days a week, at 8:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. - Larrea found himself practicing in his cell and in the recreation yard.

"You have to memorize more than just one scene. You practice everywhere," he said.

Correction officer Gerald Knowlden said RTA "makes my job a lot easier. I've never had a problem with these guys here because they want this."

Another officer, Charles Mitchell, admitted to not being able to get the up-tempo song "America" out of his head. During the performance, one officer turned to another and chirped along to "I Feel Pretty."

Correction officer Eric Haskins said inmates come in rebelling and, having taken part in the program, they change. "Inmates who are in the audience this year may be on the stage next year," he said.

And inmates on stage may soon be released.

John Mandala played the doctor in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the old juror in "Twelve Angry Men," and Capt. Markinson in "A Few Good Men" with RTA.

Released six months ago after serving 20 years for homicide, Mandala got special permission from Marshall to return to Sing Sing to support his theater family.

"They're all good kids, but you know, there's a saying I use: 'Those who are forgiven much, of them much is required.' I've been blessed in a lot of ways," he said.

Mandala is now a certified optician in Florida. He said he wouldn't have missed the show.

"It's always good to see someone that has been here and then gets out and is doing well," he said.

Just then, the correction officers made the final call for civilians to leave the prison.

Startled a bit, Mandala turned to go, saying: "I gotta get outta here. I'm not taking any chances."