This is a story that has it all, everything you want to see on stage. The greatest love story ever told—stage combat, complex choreography and issues that are current, including the ugliness of racism, alongside truth and beauty and the notion that love conquers all.”
Kevin Wade is just a little excited about directing “West Side Story” for St. Thomas Playhouse’s Summer Theatre Project. By the time the musical takes center stage at the Community School’s Performing Arts Theatre on Wednesday, June 19, through Saturday, June 22, it will have been massaged and tweaked and perfected through sweat and tears and “ah-ha” moments for what veteran performer Wade said has been a tightly packed, exhausting and exhilarating six-week rehearsal.
“The process has allowed us to wrestle with the work,” he said. “We get to work at every beat and every moment and still have a chance to let it settle in overnight. Above everything, it’s an educational experience and we have mentors and fresh faces all working through it together.”
Is there trepidation that this cast can deliver?
“If you issue the challenge, they will step up,” Wade said of the governing philosophy. “The only failure would be for us not to issue the challenge.”
“West Side Story” brings Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the slums of New York City. Young lovers Maria and Tony are caught up in a feud between rival teenage gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The tragedy unfolds as prejudice, ignorance and gang mentality take their toll. The story is brilliantly scripted and scored and contains compelling dance sequences and unforgettable songs.
“West Side Story” is from a book by Arthur Laurents, based on an idea by Jerome Robbins. Music was composed by Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim.
The young director is introducing all kinds of firsts with this endeavor, engaging actors who really are the age of the characters in roles normally saved for middle-age Broadway actors. It’s also bringing actors from the Latin community, rarely seen outside of a high school performance.
“We are uniquely poised to tell this story through young people. Traditionally, that’s not the way it’s normally presented,” Wade said.
There is also a dynamic between incoming actors and recurring performers on the odyssey.
Such interaction is one of the foundations of Summer Theater Project, a program for high school teens and young adults. Participants rehearse, produce and perform a play or musical that explores messages of hope, hurt, love, faith and choices in the journey of life.
“When you’re creating a beautiful and delicate piece of art, no part is unessential,” Wade said. “We focus on the process and not the product. But for many of us, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Izzy Taylor and Emmet Fortuin, playing Anita and Bernardo on stage, have many years of such productions on their résumés, including “Tommy,” “Hair” and “Fame.”
“This is my favorite time of year,” Fortuin said. “What this company does for this community is comparable to a Harvard education.”
Taylor said it’s the social conscience aspect of the performances that draws her each year, and the chance to use her spectacular voice and to mentor younger actors.
“I think the newbies are fascinating,” she said. “I know we’ll get a large response from the community, but my hope is that everyone in the cast can be changed by these heavy roles.”
Drake Arial, a junior at Wood River High School and a member of the drama department, is no stranger to the stage but is excited about the chance to work with a different set of professionals.
Even if acting is not the cast members’ destiny, Wade believes that the experience is important.
“We discuss relevant topics and grapple with issues they are dealing with every day,” he said. “They become role models from the stage and ambassadors for change when they leave it.”
Carlos Hurtado, a sophomore at the high school, said his role as Pepe is not just fun, but purposeful.
“Each one us has our own story, and this is a way to convey that,” Hurtado said. “I also know that I’m breaking into new territory, setting an example. I know that there are high expectations for us, but I know because of the bond we have built that we can do it.”
Wade said the cast is intense and driven, partly because of the relatable content. The story itself remains timeless because of its simple theory.
“Where is or what is the love that you fight for?” Wade said. “I believe that in every fight scene there is love because that is what we fight over. That’s why we are destined to repeat these stories.”