To be young and in love: HART presents summer musical ‘West Side Story’

By Michael Beadle

Several years ago, Haywood Arts Regional Theatre’s executive director Steve Lloyd confided in fellow actors that he’d never get the chance to do the Broadway smash “West Side Story.” There just weren’t enough young actors available who could sing and dance and act in a musical of that caliber.

Then, along came the MusicWorks Studio of Performing Arts in 2002. In the absence of consistent high school drama programs in Haywood County, the Waynesville-based studio, established by Lynne Wells-Meyer, has become a welcome talent pool for up-and-coming actors on the HART stage. Its students rave about how they’ve gained more self-confidence and encouragement to perform and have an outlet to share their creative talents.

And it’s paying off in huge dividends this summer as “West Side Story” opens this week at HART for an unprecedented four-weekend run — July 13 through Aug. 4. It’s the first time any main-stage show has played for that long in its 10-year history at the Shelton House in Waynesville.

Building relationships with MusicWorks’ young actors and honing their skills in dance, drama and singing, HART has been able to cast plays with more age-appropriate roles. For example, in this latest production of “West Side Story,” many of the teenagers who make up the inner city gang members of the Sharks and the Jets are actually the age they would be in the play rather than twentysomethings trying to play teenagers, which can often be the case in community theatres that have limited talent pools of young actors.

So Lloyd’s long-time dream of putting on “West Side Story” — a play he has twice performed in back in the 1980s — has finally come true.

“MusicWorks has a lot to do with it,” Lloyd said. About half the cast members in this HART production are MusicWorks alums including Clare Burrus, the lead female role, Maria. Burrus, a rising junior studying music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has been in a number of HART plays. Last year, she was the delightful Eliza Doolittle in HART’s summer musical “My Fair Lady.”

While the two roles have a similar bent on being an outsider, the dancing combined with singing in “West Side Story” has been quite a challenge, Burrus explained while taking a breather at a recent rehearsal.

“It’s so emotionally draining,” she said. While “My Fair Lady” had its share of feel-good music, “West Side Story” also lures its audience into the sense that love will prevail despite the dangers of inner city turf wars.

“We try to make you believe that,” Burrus said.

But there are lessons to be learned from violence.

“Hate kills everything,” Burrus said. “It can kill everything that’s beautiful.”

“West Side Story” is a complicated musical to pull off, given the dynamics of dance sequences, acrobatic fight scenes, and intricate choreography involved in songs. It’s a wonder how some actors are able to deliver their lines after dancing and singing in these dazzling scenes full of jumps and leaps and spins. Add to that the pipe and chain-link platforms that gang members climb and leap from, and you begin to admire these actors as they maneuver like spiders up and down the maze of metal and mesh.

“Nobody’s fallen yet,” said Tony Lance, who plays Tony, Maria’s love interest in the play. Lance, a recent Lee University graduate and Asheville native, enjoys the coincidence of playing a character with his own namesake and relating to a story about immigrants. His mother’s parents came to New York City from Italy.

This fall, Lance will be Big Apple bound as he goes in search of a theatre career.

In the meantime, he’s in awe of getting to play a role in what many consider the greatest musical in American theatre.

“It’s an honor to be a part of the legacy of ‘West Side Story,’” he said.

Growing up, he knew acting was something he was always interested in — he started singing at the age of 2. And having played numerous roles on stage since then — including Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” — he’s following in the footsteps of other HART actors who have gone on to professional careers.

As HART attempts to pull off what could arguably be its boldest effort at musical theatre, director Steve Lloyd has enlisted a larger-than-usual production team. Christopher Lynn, who appeared as Tony in the Flat Rock Playhouse production as well as an international touring production of “West Side Story,” is assisting Lloyd in directing the show. Melodie Galloway, a HART veteran in numerous musicals, is the show’s musical director, conducting a pit orchestra that will feature ongoing live music. Choreographer Lynn Meyer and costumers Mary Olsen and Mark Jones will help give the show a seamless look when the curtain rises.

The modernized Romeo and Juliet tale, set in 1950s upper West Side of New York City’s Manhattan, pits an American gang, the Jets, versus an immigrant Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. Tony from the Jets falls in love with Maria, sister of one of the Sharks, and there’s that hope that love with conquer all. As Tony and Maria pine away, saying “There’s a place for us” in one of their timeless songs, “Somewhere,” the audience knows these ill-fated lovers will not end up happily ever after as a rumble ensues with the police who are just a step behind in preventing a deadly mêlée. The aftershocks and street rumors leave the lovers separated until the dramatic conclusion.

And just as immigration was an emotional issue decades ago when the play opened, it still resonates today. The ethnicities may have changed, but the arguments over who deserves the right to enter the United States are still very much alive.

“There’s always been a resentment of the outsider,” said Lloyd. And as soon as one ethnicity assimilates into the American culture, there’s a new resentment for another outsider, Lloyd explained.

“West Side Story” is a battle of pride as much as anything, Lance said.

“It’s a power struggle,” he added.

It’s a desire to be the best, and in a world where competition fuels rivalries, a hot summer and a quick temper are all you need to start an inevitable turf war.

“West Side Story” is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year as it opened on Broadway in 1957. It’s complex musical score and dark themes earned mixed reviews — some said it was the next big leap in American theatre while others decried it as too experimental. An Oscar-winning movie version in 1961, starring Rita Moreno, Natalie Wood and George Chakiris, gave “West Side Story” a much wider appeal.

Originally, playwright Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins set out to create a post-World War II story set in New York City featuring an Italian-American Catholic boy who falls for a Jewish girl who survived the Holocaust and came to America. This “East Side Story” was later changed to “West Side Story.” The Italian-American boy became the Polish American Anton or Tony, and the Jewish girl became a Puerto Rican girl named Maria. Composer Leonard Bernstein enlisted the talents of a young protégé, Stephen Sondheim, who would debut as a songwriter and lyricist for his first Broadway show.


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