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The Jets of “West Side Story” starring from left, Duard Headley, Meredith Rowe, Bear Wright, Josh Seitz as Riff, Jonah Trillana, Ursula Kremer, Christina Brewer,   David Walker, and in front, Sumayah Chappelle and Zoe Williams. The show opens this weekend at the Antioch College Foundry Theater. (Photo by Lauren Heaton)

The Jets of “West Side Story” starring from left, Duard Headley, Meredith Rowe, Bear Wright, Josh Seitz as Riff, Jonah Trillana, Ursula Kremer, Christina Brewer, David Walker, and in front, Sumayah Chappelle and Zoe Williams. The show opens this weekend at the Antioch College Foundry Theater. (Photo by Lauren Heaton)

YSHS’s ‘West Side Story’ sweeps you up

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Since she was 12 or so, Cindy Lincoln has dreamed of directing her favorite Broadway production, “West Side Story.” She spent several decades developing her own skills as a director and then waited for an ensemble to come along with the voices, dance skills and pure youthful energy to pull it off. The Yellow Springs High School thespians will animate that dream this weekend with the opening of the romantic tragedy based on “Romeo and Juliet” with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

“I didn’t want to do it half way because I don’t feel right about giving young people more than they can handle,” Lincoln said in an interview last week. “They have to earn their success to really feel their self confidence and self worth.”

Audiences can evaluate the performance themselves when “West Side Story” opens on Friday, March 13, at 8 p.m. at the Antioch College Foundry Theater. The shows run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. on March 13–15 and 20–22.

But don’t look for Anna Knippling there. She not only becomes the lead character Maria in half of the shows, she is so engrossed in the story that she is Maria much of the time — even off stage, she said last week.

“The plot is so intense and dramatic, sometimes I get in that zone,” said Knippling. “It’s very emotional and it’s hard not to get emotional when you’re in it.”

The intense emotions of the story of two lovers caught between two rival New York City gangs in the 1950s have drawn the 38 Yellow Springs High School students deeply into their characters, who are the same age as the teenagers who play them. But their life experiences differ widely. The violent rivalries, overt racial discrimination, poverty and immigrant status of the show’s two working class American populations, the newest Puerto Ricans and the more seasoned white ethnic Americans, were issues the actors had to research. And to really get the love story that emerges between Tony, a multigeneration New Yorker, and Maria, a Puerto Rican “immigrant,” the students had to understand the conflicts that were driving the two groups apart, said co-director Lorrie Sparrow, who stepped in three weeks ago when Lincoln developed an illness.

“We didn’t pull back from the fact that the entire West Side love story is based on people who are killing each other for the home where they all live,” Sparrow said, noting that though Puerto Ricans were treated as foreigners when the production premiered in 1957, they were Americans even before they came to the mainland.

The intensity of the story with music by the best (here provided by pianist Mary Fahrenbruck and the Yellow Springs Community Orchestra under the direction of James Johnston) demands not only musical talent but serious acting skills, Sparrow said. “Before ‘West Side Story’ we had musicals. After ‘West Side Story’ we had musical theater,” she said.

“It’s a perfect storm of wonderfulness,” Lincoln said.

But the intensity is very demanding.

“There is no cutting corners in West Side Story,” according to Sparrow. “You have to be able to sing, dance and you have to be able to act with advanced skills to pull this off with any kind of weight, gravity or respect for the play.”

The big voices that Bernstein wrote for the two principals, Maria and Tony, are so demanding that the YSHS production has double cast both roles. Knippling and Windom Mesure will play the roles one night, and Nekyla Hawkins and Blaze Wright will play the couple on alternate nights, both of them “completely valid, lovely shows,” according to Sparrow.

“Blaze and Nekyla are the romantic Tony and Maria, while Anna and Windom have this sweetness that you can’t make up,” she said.

The quality of the male voices is also very different, both directors said. Mesure is a high tenor with a sense of humor that comes through in his character; while Wright is a baritone tenor and has an intensity that his character takes on.

Mesure, a sophomore who has never played a romantic lead before, was surprised to be cast as one of the Tony’s and thought the director may have made a mistake.

Though Lincoln never precasts a show, she said, she does make sure before choosing the show that she has the talent to do it. And though Lincoln knew Mesure had a strong stage presence, she did not know he could sing until they started working together.

“Being a high tenor is unusual for a kid his age — he’s very gifted,” she said.

In the show’s two main supporting roles, Josh Seitz was cast as Riff, the leader of the Jets and Tony’s best friend, and Kara Edwards as Anita, girlfriend of Bernardo (Sam Butler), who is the leader of the Sharks. Seitz controls the stage with big movements and facial expressions, which he mastered as the Pirate King in last year’s production of the Pirates of Penzance. And Edwards is commanding as Anita, the emotional fulcrum of the entire story’s undoing. It’s Anita who gets abused by the Jets in a sexually threatening scene. The audience sees it on Anita’s face when she finds out that Maria has committed the ultimate betrayal of her Puerto Rican heritage by falling in love with Tony, friend to the Jets and foe to Bernardo. Anita is then devastated when Bernardo gets killed, and once more at the end of the show, when all seems lost.

“Anita has to be sexy, confident and beautiful, and that’s asking a lot of a high school girl,” Lincoln said. “Kara came in, sang the best audition we heard that entire process, and she’s been rock solid ever since. She rose to the occasion.”

Set against the grungy urban backdrop of the Foundry Theater, the Jets and the Sharks cut around the floor with their signature “Pow!” inserted between smooth, jazzy snapping, choreographed by Ali Thomas and Jaimie Wilke. The Jets are played by Duard Headley, Meredith Rowe, Ursula Kramer, Bear Wright, Jonah Trillana, David Walker, Sumayah Chappelle and Zoe Williams. Their girls are played by Mollye Malone, Sarah Jako, Annabel Welsh, Kaila Russell, Olivia Brintlinger-Conn, Chelsea Horton and Allison Bothwell. The Sharks are played by Tara Estebo, Shanice Wright, Reese Elam and Zoe Clark. Their girls are played by Modjeska Chavez, Shekinah Williams, Christina Burks, Charlotte Walkey, Lorien Chavez, Maya Heredia, Grace Wilke, Sierra Ward and Nia Stewart. Petrina Mac-Lamptey plays Schrank.

“West Side Story” opens Friday, March 13 and at 8 p.m. at the Antioch College Foundry Theater and plays Saturday, March 14 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 15, at 2 p.m. Shows run the same times the following weekend, March 20–22. Tickets are $10 at the door, $7 for students and seniors.

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