NEW ALBANY • The New Albany High School auditorium has been transformed into 1950s New York City.
Store fronts, apartments, alleys and the harsh streets of the Upper West Side now appear. Next week, there will be a turf war between rival gangs on the stage. Yet in the midst of the hate, violence and prejudice, two young people will fall in love.
When the NAHS theater program sought a production to match the rising talent of its students, “West Side Story” was a perfect choice.
“Our students have grown, and it was time for something deep, something dramatic,” said NAHS musical director Mary Beth Muncie.
New Albany High will present “West Side Story School Edition” Feb. 7-9. Show times are 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 7 and 8, and 2 p.m. on Feb. 9. Reserved seating tickets are available through the school office. General admission tickets will be sold at the door.
It’s been 30 years since New Albany High – then known as W.P. Daniel High – presented “West Side Story.” For the play’s revival at NAHS, this year’s cast is performing the “School Edition” that was released in 2018 for licensing by high schools and amateur groups.
Music Theater International, a theatrical licensing agency, has adjusted musical favorites like “West Side Story,” “Les Miserables” and “Rent” by slightly altering some content and simplifying production, choreography and musical elements.
Even with the School Edition, Muncie said it’s still the same “West Side Story.”
“It’s Romeo and Juliet in inner-city New York,” she said.
The central characters are Maria, played by Laura Ruth Welborn, and Tony, played by Jake Moore. Maria and Tony fall in love despite their different backgrounds. Maria is the sister of Bernardo (Max Spencer), leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks gang. Tony is a former member of the “American” Jets gang now led by his friend, Riff (Whit Robbins).
Maria’s best friend is Anita (Emma Reid), who’s also Bernado’s girlfriend. Anita tries to shield Maria from the harsh truths of the world. However, the Jets/Sharks conflict jeopardizes the love Tony and Maria have for each other.
Muncie said “West Side Story School Edition” is the school’s largest-ever production with 83 in the cast and almost 50 people working backstage.
Other principal cast members are Bonnie Littlejohn (Consuelo), Chloe Adams (Rosalia), Lilly Faith Childs (Francesca), Janiya Rutherford (Anybodys) and Layla Stewart (Graziella). The musical also includes performers who play the Jets and the Sharks, the girls for each gang, New York policemen and citizens, adults, the America dance ensemble, the “Somewhere” dream sequence, and the Coro Cantantes.
“We’ve done several Disney musicals over the last four, five years, and our students have grown technically,” she said. “So, they’re ready for the challenge of the dramatic side of ‘West Side Story.’ It’s definitely more challenging, and they are dominating it.”
Welborn said the student actors wanted a production like “West Side Story” to elevate their skills.
“It’s different from anything we’ve ever done before,” she said. “I feel like our theater department, as a whole, is ready to take the next step and do something bigger and deeper. I think it’s really exciting to see the ‘West Side Story’ that we’ve all known for a very long time come to life in New Albany.”
The auditorium stage, Muncie said, will be open throughout the production to reveal the various moving sets and scenery of the Upper West Side.
“There will be no use of curtains. We’ve taken down all the curtains,” she said. “All the set pieces can move and roll. We never have to bring anything off stage. That’s a new concept for us. It’s more in line with what a professional touring company would do at the Orpheum.”
New Albany High is participating in the 2020 Orpheum High School Musical Theatre Awards sponsored by the historic Memphis venue. New Albany won two awards out of nine nominations last year.
“West Side Story School Edition” is being presented in memory of the late Linda Atkeison, who was an English teacher and musical director in the New Albany school district.
NAHS also wants to honor those who were a part of W.P. Daniel’s 1990 production of “West Side Story.”
The 1990 cast, crew and production staff are invited to attend the opening night performance (Friday, Feb. 7) and join the 2020 cast for a meet-and-greet reception in the NAHS media center immediately following the show.