West Side Story Wins Praise from Audience

Photos courtesy of Brooke Smith: Members of the West Side Story cast take a bow after a performance.

People said it was like they were taken out of the seats of the McClain auditorium… and they were right.

From March 2nd through March 4th, a group of talented students, teachers and musicians performed the annual MHS musical. This time, it was the profound West Side Story. Unlike last year’s lively, charming Anything Goes, West Side Story brought in a whole new type of MHS musical –a sense of dark, captivating emotion. This aspect of the show pulled people out of their seats to make them feel as if they were not, in fact, watching a high school performance.

West Side Story, the well-known musical inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, has been making its mark in musical history for well over fifty years. It has been nominated and won multiple Tony Awards, including “Best Choreography” in the original 1958 musical and “Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role,” in the 2009 Broadway Revival. Additionally, it has won the 1958 “Theatre World Award” and the 1980 Broadway Revival “Drama Desk Award.” Keeping this extraordinary status in mind, the backbone of the musical (the students, teachers and musicians) were undoubtedly dedicated to the production of the show.

The show’s director, Ms. Gellert, did a phenomenal job balancing the direction with the orchestra. Her present, theatrical mood set the atmosphere of the show and kept the environment steady. In addition to Ms. Gellert’s extraordinary work, other notable teachers that brought the show together included Mrs. Gundling and her incredible ability to coach and direct the fabulous singing; crowd-pleasing songs like “Gee Officer Krupke” got standing ovations. MHS has never had a more professional look to a musical, from all technical aspects. Mr. Borowka’s stellar competence with the lighting helped set the mood in intense scenes, such as when Tony fell to the floor, distraught and angry when people told him Maria had been killed.

To top off the direction and production of the musical, the students were fortunate enough to speak with and obtain advice from Martin Charnin, the conceiver, director and lyricist of the hit musical Annie as well as “Big Deal,” one of the Jets in the original production of West Side Story. This was a huge honor for the students and teachers involved in the production of the show. Charnin’s comments and critiques were depicted in the show; he assisted in improving the outstanding choreography of the opening scene, along with other major scenes.

The choreography, however, would not have been complete without Mrs. Parsley’s fabulous skills. Her ability to create such complex moves, such as the fight scene between the Jets and the Sharks, illustrated how hard she worked helping students perfect every move. Parsley’s dedication was truly represented through the precise dancing of all characters.

In conjunction with the unique choreography, the music played a huge part in the musical. The music itself is complex, becoming louder during intense scenes and softer during calmer parts. One song that stuck out was “One Hand, One Heart.” This was beautifully arranged, sung by Tony and Maria and brought together by the pit. The varied music, fluctuating from sad, darker songs to cheerful, upbeat music unified the show. While this was not easy to do, the orchestra did an exceptional job embracing the challenging music and pleasing the ear.

Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 11.36.52 PM
Lindsey Belisle ’19 and Brooke Smith ’18 act out a scene.

Along with the superior orchestra, the casting choices worked splendidly. It felt as if the students had studied these characters and placed themselves in the 1950s, understanding each and every bit of their role. The main lovers, Tony and Maria, were played by Ties Jansen and Lindsey Belisle. Both Jansen and Belisle conveyed their characters with spot on romantic chemistry, which is not easy to accomplish in a high school production. During their romantic songs, like “One Hand, One Heart” and “Tonight” Jansen and Belisle struck the audience emotionally with their chemistry. True chemistry is indescribable, and Jansen and Belisle achieved this through their acting.

Moreover, their voices were something to take note of. Belisle has such a wide range, hitting high notes that are extremely difficult for a sophomore in high school to grasp and perfect. Jansen’s voice was particularly impressive for a male vocalist. He expressed emotion in his voice that matched Belisle’s talent. The two sounded impeccable together, balancing each other’s voices, while also emphasizing their own personal strengths.

Anthony Madalone stood out on the stage as Riff, the leader of the Jets. His passionate performance fascinated the audience during the disputes with Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, played by Eli Meyers. Meyers’ acting fit Bernardo’s sense of strength, as he aimed to make a living for himself and his sister in America.

Another notable performance to mention was Brooke Smith, as the feisty Anita. Smith’s poised, yet sarcastic, delivery of the song “America,” enticed the audience with her dancing, voice and overall ability to get into the audacious mind of Anita. Smith clearly put in the effort to grasp Anita’s determined, fiery personality as she transitions into life in America.

While this year’s performance of West Side Story showcased the talent at MHS, the tech crew did an incredible job controlling the set and quickly carrying props on and off the stage.

It continues to be unfortunate that the sound system does not match the talent onstage. At times, it was challenging to make out what some students were saying or singing. With such a quality show, the school should make it a priority to support and showcase special moments like these.

This year’s performance of West Side Story truly showed what it means to be part of something special. Its message was timely, especially during the closing scene when Tony was shot and killed. A major theme of the musical, which is very much alive today, is the idea of racial divisions in society. As members of the Jets struggled to pick up Tony’s body, members of the Sharks stood up to help. This was a powerful scene that subtly hints at working towards ending these divides.

By Emma Gottsegen

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