West Side Story: Pinecrest High School Presents Classic Production
Pinecrest High School is celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of Broadway's award-winning shows with the presentation of "West Side Story," the landmark production that transformed American musical theater.
Performances in the Robert E. Lee Auditorium are on Friday and Saturday evenings, March 30 and 31, with a matinee on Sunday, April 1.
Based on a loose re-telling of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," "West Side Story" is set against the backdrop of gang warfare on New York City's streets and explores the tensions between rival gang members of different ethnic and cultural heritage. The dark theme, Leonard Bernstein's sophisticated score, Jerome Robbins' electrifying street-wise choreography and the focus on social problems marked a turning point for Broadway musicals that had previously leaned toward lighter subjects.
"West Side Story" is the first show in which Adam Faw, the artistic and technical director of the Pinecrest High School Theater Department, ever participated.
"It was put on in my hometown of Mount Airy, and got me hooked on musical theater," he says.
A graduate of Appalachian State University with a degree in theater, he says he has always wanted to have a chance to direct a production.
"It is such a big undertaking, however, that I hadn't seriously considered doing it until James Brown, the director of choral studies at Pinecrest and the musical director of our annual show, suggested it for this year's production," he says. "We both felt that we had the talent and the numbers who would want to be in it."
As a matter of fact, about 60 students showed up for auditions, from which a cast of 42 was chosen.
Faw believes that the scope of the show represents a huge test of each element he has ever learned about musical theater -- the sets, the lighting, the music, the choreography -- as he works to pull everything together into a single vision. His technical theater class gets involved with the carpentry, painting, and electrical work, and the lighting design was done under Faw's supervision by student technicians, who will be operating the light board during the run of the show.
A senior, Ashleigh Worley, is the technical director for the production.
"She is very talented in all aspects of technical design," Faw says.
A student backstage crew will be overseen by stage manager, Kayla Fletcher.
Augmenting the student involvement, sound design and costuming are handled by David Godsey of Fayetteville's Extra Mike studio and Mary McKeithen of Showboat Costumes, respectively. And the 18-piece orchestra under the direction of James Brown is a mix of local professional musicians and students.
Brown, who holds a bachelor's degree in music education from the University of Akron, is presently completing his work on a master's degree in choral conducting. As part of his studies, he joined the university in a tour of Switzerland and Italy, which afforded him the chance to conduct as well as perform. Last year he took two groups from Pinecrest to a national choral competition where they tied for third and fourth place, and he will take two more groups of Pinecrest students to the same choral festival this year when it is held in San Francisco.
According to critics of the time, the dancing was what set "West Side Story" apart, and it won a Tony award for choreographer, Jerome Robbins, who also directed the show. Julianna Johnston, who has been working on the Pinecrest production, says, "I have had the best time choreographing the show with these young people."
A recent newcomer to the Sandhills, Johnston grew up in Atlanta and attended a performing arts high school. Her subsequent career as a dancer and choreographer has been complemented by organizing and operating both community and professional theaters.
She gives the Pinecrest cast members of "West Side Story" high marks for their enthusiastic approach to the complex Robbins technique.
"They have tried so very hard to capture each and every step and movement with precision and in characterized style," she says. "Instead of having a few dance soloists, I have asked the entire cast to literally 'step up.' And they have succeeded quite nicely."
Junior Jack Markham, who plays Riff in the Pinecrest production, cites the dancing as the biggest challenge for him. He is no stranger to musical theater, having appeared in several other school shows.
"I don't have any trouble memorizing lines or lyrics, but the dancing in 'West Side Story' is strenuous and complicated, and takes a lot of dedication and stamina," he says.
For sophomore Bradley Gibson, dance comes naturally. He has taken ballet, tap and jazz, and last December appeared as "The Nutcracker" in a local production. He has been active in theater since elementary school, and has been seen in the community theater versions of "Oliver!" and "The Music Man."
As Bernardo, head of one of the rival gangs, he feels fortunate to have a chance to play a more serious role.
"It's a much tougher part than the ones I have played in the past, and it gives me the opportunity to expand my acting abilities," says Gibson.
When junior Tanya Bator first tried out for the show, she hoped she could be cast as one of the girls that hang out with either of the two gangs.
"I haven't really participated in any plays or musicals ever since elementary school, but I wanted to get back into theater, and I thought I would give it a shot," she says. "To my surprise, I ended up being selected for one of the major parts -- that of Anita, Bernardo's girl friend."
Bator believes she was chosen for this role "because I have a lot of spunk, and Anita's character is very confident and very proud. During auditions, I guess I showed a little bit of arrogance and the aggressive attitude that the part requires."
For Matt Hazzard, playing the leading role of Tony, one of the young lovers, being a part of the cast of "West Side Story" is the highlight of his high school experience so far.
"Rehearsing has been a blast -- it's terrific, getting to work with people who enjoy it as much as I do, and getting to sing all those great songs," he says.
Hazzard has taken Adam Faw's theater class, and has worked diligently to bring the part of Tony to life.
"I wanted to make the character mine, because there have been so many adaptations of 'West Side Story,'" he says. "I haven't watched the movie, and I haven't seen a stage production, so I have been able to interpret the character in my own way, without other influences."
He had the part of Hero in last year's Pinecrest production of "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum," and also had played the Emperor in "The Imperial Nightingale," but he needed help in reaching the high notes of Tony's solos. The part of Tony was written in the tenor range, and Hazzard's normal baritone voice couldn't quite make the grade.
"If it weren't for all the help I have received from James Brown, I wouldn't have been able to tackle many of the songs," says Hazzard. "He also worked with me on dynamics and interpretation, and I have grown into the tenor part."
The part of Maria, the innocent young lover caught up in the midst of gang warfare, is taken by Caroline Gallagher.
"The hardest part of playing the role was to portray the feelings of Maria, to show her sensitivity," Gallagher says. "I think one of the most important scenes is when Tony and Maria meet and fall in love at first sight. Getting those emotions across demands expressing myself in a very creative way."
Gallagher has taken voice lessons for the last two years and is presently a member of a pair of chorus classes with James Brown. Outside of school, her clear soprano is one of the voices heard in the Moore County Choral Society.
One of the best-remembered musical numbers of West Side Story is Tony's beautiful ballad, "Maria." And the haunting lovers' duets of "Tonight" and "There's a Place for Us" have won a place in the hearts of all who have seen the show.
Despite the passage of time, "West Side Story" still is performed frequently by local theaters and occasionally by classical opera companies. The show became an Oscar-winning film in 1961, went on tour on four separate occasions and has had a Broadway revival.
"Anytime the show is done, it is a huge draw," Faw says, "and it is the one show with which today's high school students are most familiar."
Tickets for the three performances of Pinecrest High School's production of "West Side Story" are $10 for adults and $8 for students, and may be obtained at the door.
Curtain time is at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.
Tickets will also be available for a fund-raising raffle at $5 each.
The winning ticket holder will receive a two-night stay for two at Chetola Resort at Blowing Rock during the summer season, and two tickets to one of Blowing Rock Stage Company's productions during its 2007 season.
Mary Elle Hunter is a Pinehurst freelance writer. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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