Josefina Scaglione stars in 'West Side Story'

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You'll know Josefina Scaglione as soon as you see her. She's the one who, like her character, Maria, is in an advanced state of shock.

"When I first came here, I was going to give a kiss to some of the girls backstage and they were like 'Oh, no. This is my space ... don't touch,'" says Scaglione, 21, star of a revived and revamped "West Side Story," opening in New York Thursday.

"That really shocked me, because I can't go to a place where I've spent a week of rehearsals and not touch people in a friendly way. I'm going to kiss you every time I see you, because it's just my way of saying 'Hi.' When I arrive at the theater, it's kisses, everywhere."

It's likely that New Yorkers will return Scaglione's affections once "West Side Story," the classic musical about a New York Romeo and his Puerto Rican Juliet, settles into the Palace Theatre. Already a smash during a monthlong engagement in Washington, this production marks the first Broadway revival in almost 30 years - and the first with sections of the book and lyrics translated into Spanish ("Siento Hermosa," in lieu of "I Feel Pretty"). Arthur Laurents, 91, who wrote the 1957 book, directs.

Scaglione, a trained opera singer from the Buenos Aires suburbs, was appearing as bratty Amber Von Tussle in the Argentine staging of "Hairspray" when she was tapped as Maria through a familiar ritual of who-you-know.

As part of a personal marketing effort, she tackled an interpretation of the melody "Libertango," by the pioneering composer Astor Piazzolla, and posted it on YouTube. Laurents has friends in the Buenos Aires arts community, who forwarded him the link ("Yes," Scaglione assures, "Arthur uses a computer ... and he's fast on the staircases, too.")

Next, Scaglione sent producers a video recording of "A Boy Like That" and "Tonight," made in two days with help from her "Hairspray" conductor. It got her an invitation to New York in September, where she won the role of Maria two days after her 21st birthday.

Her "West Side Story" co-stars include Matt Cavenaugh ("A Catered Affair") as Tony, and Karen Olivo ("In the Heights") as Anita.

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If there's any musical that can withstand partial translation into a foreign language, it's "West Side Story." The songs, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein, are part of our collective consciousness: "A Boy Like That," here titled "Un Hombre Asi," will convey what it needs to, whether you understand Spanish or not. (Translations were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the kinetic composer of "In the Heights"; surtitles were considered, then eliminated, during the D.C. run.)

"You don't need to understand each word to know the meaning of what I'm trying to say," Scaglione says. "If someone goes and they've never seen it, I still think they'll understand because of what we're 'transmitting.'"

Other modernized aspects of this revival include a racier gymnasium dance scene, and the brief sight of a Jet flashing a middle finger at a fellow gang member, elements that would not have been seen in the musical's past appearances on Broadway.

Her second time in New York

Modern New York is a new experience for Scaglione, an Argentine of Italian descent. (For the record, she's never been to Puerto Rico.) Her first trip to America was seven years ago, at 14, to attend a summer arts program in Pittsburgh. When it ended, she made a three-day detour to New York City, "because how could I not?"

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Subsequently, she graduated high school in Rosario and moved to Buenos Aires, where she lived on her own at 17. A willowy soprano, she's a veteran at home of shows from "Annie" (at age 10) to a more recent " Cinderella," opposite Argentine TV star Sebastian Francini. There are no past productions of "West Side Story" on her resumé, though she did rent the 1961 Natalie Wood movie after being hired by Laurents. Had Laurents not come calling with "West Side Story," Scaglione was due to play Christine in the Argentine production of "Phantom of the Opera."

"I did all I could in Rosario, and I touched the ceiling, so I needed to go up," she says.

In New York, Scaglione has taken up residence in an apartment not far from Times Square, where she stays connected to her home by "cooking a lot of steak" and surrounding herself with photos of "my people" - her mom and dad, who both work in the medical field, and two older brothers, all still Rosarinos.

At the Palace, Scaglione has another reminder of home, in actor George Akram, who plays her brother, Bernardo, the Shark-in-chief. Akram, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, is the only other South American in the cast. Theirs are the only two characters whose stage time together transpires entirely in Spanish, a habit the pair has carried to their backstage chatting.

"When a third person comes in, we usually switch back to English because it would be rude otherwise ... unless we don't want them to know what we're talking about," Akram joked, during a recent rehearsal break.

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Reminders of home

In their moments unconsumed by rehearsal, the friends have gone to see Cirque du Soleil and "Fuerza Bruta," and explored Curry Hill spice shops, where both have found foods familiar to their palates. One of those culinary reminders of home is yerbe mate, the highly caffeinated herbal beverage that is the national drink of several South American countries and is enjoyed as part of a social practice, the way New Yorkers will "meet for coffee."

It makes Scaglione - to borrow another phrase from "I Feel Pretty" - feel fizzy, and funny and fine.

"In Argentina, we're used to drinking mate and hanging out with friends. Drinking mate is a way of being together and sharing something," she says. "It keeps me connected to my way of living." It will have to suffice, at least until more New Yorkers warm up to the idea of kissing strangers.

WHEN&WHERE

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"West Side Story" opens Thursday night at the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway in Manhattan. Visit ticketmaster.com for ticket info and show times.

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