When you hear the first bar of the familiar score, feel the auditorium lights fall and the blue background begin to glow, your eyes focus on the standing silhouette of Riff. An eerie whistling sounds. Swiftly, he’ll jump down, the Jets will gather, and the snapping will begin. It happens in the first few seconds, and you’ll realize the MVRHS performing arts department has taken on the iconic musical “West Side Story,” a nearly impossible feat, and they’ve done it with strength, class, and style.
“West Side Story” is a musical dating back to its 1957 debut on Broadway, and is based on William Shakespeare’s classic play “Romeo and Juliet.” Through music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Jerome Robbins, and words by Arthur Laurents, it tells the story of the forbidden love between Tony and Maria, two people involved with opposing street gangs in 1950s Manhattan. The Sharks, who are Puerto Rican, and the Jets, who are Italian, battle over control of the turf. Heavy themes are addressed in the show, involving race, love, family, immigration, poverty, gender, and violence.
The idea to tackle “West Side Story” was proposed by Janis Wightman, a musical director who is retiring this year after 20 years of working with the high school. For her last show, she wanted to do something great, so Ms. Wightman worked with director Brooke Hardman Ditchfield, costumer Chelsea McCarthy, Ken Romero, Charlie Esposito, and Abigail Chandler, beginning preparations in September to pull it off. “They were skeptical,” said Ms. Wightman on Sunday, before the cast’s first of many dress rehearsals that week. Mr. Romero responded, “We weren’t skeptical, we were scared.”
Mr. Romero, the choreographer, began dance rehearsals in early October of last year, and has held four-hour practices every Sunday since then. According to Mr. Romero, only about two of the 50 cast members are dancers, the others taking on the difficult choreography for the first time. “Keep that in mind while you watch the show,” he said. He kept as close to the original choreography as the kids could handle. “It is iconic,” Mr. Romero said about the dancing in the show, “and you have to do it right.”
This seemed to be the mindset for everyone involved — they want to pay homage to the musical they know and love, and prepare for an audience who wants the same. “People who come to see this show are going to recognize it, because it changed musical theater as we know it,” Ms. Ditchfield, the show’s director, said.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve tackled musically,” Ms. Chandler, the show’s conductor and music teacher at MVRHS, said. “If you do it mediocre, there’s no point in doing it. The only reason we’re doing it is so we can do it as good as the Bernstein score deserves.”
She has worked tirelessly with the orchestra, who have been practicing since September. The members of the orchestra are not students; they are members of the community who volunteered to perform, and are happy to do so. Paxson and Rebecca Laird are two orchestra members who have performed for previous productions for MVRHS. “There’s not a lot of performance opportunities on the Island, so it’s kind of a fun hobby for us,” Ms. Laird said.
“We discussed doing it with a limited orchestra, with just a few players, because we knew it was going to be hundreds of hours of practice. That’s a lot to ask from community members,” Ms. Chandler said. “To have these kids in the high school to have the opportunity to play with an orchestra of this caliber is amazing. It’s been a really long, arduous journey, but I have learned so much from the Bernstein score, from my students, and from the orchestra members who are donating their time.”
Mr. Esposito, the technical director, led a crew of students who helped with set design, lighting, and audio effects, all of which are vital for this emotional show. He has mentored students on handling tech by themselves, and will hand over the reigns on opening night.
“Everyone here is in service of the show and in service of the kids,” Ms. McCarthy said. They also brought in English teachers from the high school to give the cast a deeper understanding of “Romeo and Juliet,” which is at the heart of this musical. The five directors are constantly collaborating to make the show successful. “They see us work as a team, so that makes them work as a team,” Mr. Romero said.
Ms. Ditchfield said the students are the reason they took on such a big production. “We knew we needed students who could do it all. Students who could dance, because this is a very dance-heavy show, students who could sing, because this is some of the hardest music you’ll ever encounter in musical theater, and students who can really act, because it’s deep subject matter,” she said. “If we didn’t have the students that we have right now, we wouldn’t be doing this show.”
The timing couldn’t be more perfect, because the show brings up many issues our world is facing today, something she and the others involved acknowledged. “If we are true artists,” Ms. Ditchfield said, “we’re looking at what’s going on and we’re holding a mirror up to it.”
Surprisingly, it is the students who appreciated this aspect the most. “In the show, every character has a message. It does not matter what character you’re playing, everyone on that stage matters just as much as everyone else,” said Samantha Cassidy, who plays the character Anybodies, a masculine girl who is trying to join the all-male Jets gang. Ms. Cassidy talked about how her character addresses gender, which is a prevalent issue in today’s news.
The show takes on many difficult issues, which each student has had to face in their role, and they have had to learn how to cope with the emotions they must access once they’re off-stage. “Everyone was very taken back by it,” Emily Hewson, who plays Maria, said about the process. “It’s really emotional towards the end of the show. Brooke took probably like a half an hour to just talk and explain how important it was, and how impactful it can be for the audience.”
“After the first run-through, we talked as a company about how we’re not going to shy away from things. There were a couple of things that we changed that were too sexual,” Ms. Hewson said. Because of the mature subjects addressed in the musical, the directors decided to bring in Community Service’s Connect To End Violence program representatives to speak with the kids and talk about any issues they had with difficult scenes.
Lizzie Williamson, who plays Anita, talked about dealing with a scene where her character is sexually assaulted. She said, “When I get off the stage, I am so tense. I know it’s my peers doing it, and I feel safe with them, but there is something very tense [when I’m] getting off [stage]. I have to forget and leave that on the stage, and go off and be able to shake it off. I was struggling with that for a while.”
But they are supported by their faculty every step of the way, and the kids are very thankful. Ms. Williamson also recalled that when she was feeling emotional about her part, her director was there for her. “Brooke called me after rehearsal and made sure I was okay, and was making sure I was okay before my character was okay.” The students said their director often gave talks about leaving their emotions on stage, talking about any issues when they left the stage, and relying on their cast members.
Ms. Williamson also said after hearing some of her peers’ personal stories about racism, she had a thought. “I realized this show isn’t about me, it’s about them. It’s about how our community needs to see we have these problems. Even though we think we’re so sheltered on this Island and that everything is just fantastic here, it still happens. I think we need to be more respectful towards that, and show that our age group is really wanting to make the change, starting with this 50-person ensemble, I think we’re all more educated and feel more power to go out and show this. I can’t wait to show this to people.”
“I love theater that tells a hard message, because those are the ones that people need to hear,” Ms. Cassidy said. “This show is hard on every level — the dancing is hard, the singing is hard, the emotions are hard, everything is hard but it’s so worth it.”
The students put on a very convincing show, and the talent is evident throughout the cast, which Ms. Wightman said is a mix of new and returning actors. You will be stunned by their voices in some standout songs like “Tonight,” and “Somewhere,” but every number shows that their months of vocal preparations have paid off (some actors began their voice lessons last July). You won’t have to try very hard to keep an eye out for Action, played by Harold Lawry V. He is an excellent actor, singer, and dancer and shows all three skills off in “Gee, Officer Krupke.” All the Jets shine in this song and seemed to have a lot of well-deserved fun with it during rehearsals. The scenes that the audience will enjoy the most are the ones where the actors are enjoying themselves, too. There is some really amazing cohesiveness and dancing in the gym scene, which the kids said was one of the hardest to learn. They fit almost the entire cast on stage and move and twist around, synchronizing with each other, all while shouting Sondheim’s memorable lyrics, “Mambo!” Matt Jenkins plays a convincing Lieutenant Schrank, delivering many of the musical’s most controversial lines with the intense wickedness that the role requires. All the leads are fantastic. Maria, played by Emily Hewson, has a speaking voice unbelievably reminiscent of Natalie Wood in the 1961 “West Side Story” film. It’s amazing how close they’ve all come to professional performers while they are still balancing the full-time job that is high school.
“This is a really, really tough show and we have asked a lot of [the students],” said Ms. Ditchfield. “There are many generations who can come and see this show and be reminded how it changed theater, and how art can really send a powerful message about what’s going on in the world around us as a society.”
“West Side Story” will play at the Performing Arts Center at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School on Feb. 15, 16, and 17 at 7 pm. There will be a matinee performance on Sunday, Feb. 18, at 2 pm. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors.