CENTRE STAGE: Rising star Jennifer Gillis says playing Maria in West Side Story is a dream come true

Unrequited love under the stars.

Jennifer Gillis is full of gratitude these days. A rising musical theatre star who was featured on the 2012 CBC reality show Over the Rainbow at only 16, she’s now in her third year at Capilano University’s musical theatre program. This summer she’s putting her hard work into practice as Maria in West Side Story at Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS).

“It’s an absolute honour to be playing Maria,” said Gillis, “it’s such a classic musical, and so many people dream of playing this role. It’s been great to dive into the character.”

Gillis is particularly enjoying this role because she finds a lot of similarities between herself and Maria. “A lot of people think she is naïve, but Maria is strong and passionate and willing to stand up for herself. She has a big heart and her love for Tony is full-fledged.”

Based on the classic unrequited love story of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story features the feuding New York street gangs the Jets and Sharks instead of the Montagues and Capulets. The themes of love and violence are timeless, and Gillis hopes that the show can open our eyes to some of the discrimination still present in society. “I know it sounds cliché, but I think West Side Story has the power to change the world,” she said. “I hope it inspires the audience to spread love, positivity, and acceptance.”  

Gillis said her favourite song from the show is “Somewhere,” which she describes as a tearjerker. “It encompasses what the whole story is about,” she said, referencing the line “Somewhere there’s a place for us,” and the way it promotes belonging and inclusivity.

“A Boy Like That” is also one of her favourites where Maria and Anita learn about each other and what they might have in common.

“There’s a deep message in West Side Story,” said Gillis, “and I’m blessed to be able to share it.” With TUTS’s long, storied history as a cultural institution in Vancouver, Gillis is thrilled and grateful to be performing at the Malkin Bowl. “Seeing all the previous cast member signatures on the wall; it’s a real honour to be part of the season.”