High schools gang up for ‘West Side Story’

High schools gang up for ‘West Side Story’

High school students in Pawtucket rehearse for “West Side Story,” a musical in which a modern-day Romeo and Juliet are involved in New York street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Rosalia, on left, played by Cassandra Cutelo, a junior at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and Anita, played by Perla Reyes, a sophomore at Tolman High School, sing the song “America,” during rehearsal last Wednesday. (Breeze photo by Charles Lawrence)

PAWTUCKET – The city’s three high schools are ganging up to present the iconic musical “West Side Story,” a show the cast and crew say is important and timely given today’s current political climate.

The musical, a modern day “Romeo and Juliet” set in 1950s New York City featuring rival street gangs, the Sharks, from Puerto Rico, and the Jets, a white gang, will take place on Friday, May 3 and Saturday, May 4, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, May 5, at 2 p.m. in the Tolman High School auditorium, 150 Exchange St. in Pawtucket.

“It’s a really incredible, powerful, moving production,” Director Miriam Scheff told The Breeze. “I think students of this age group presenting such a powerful and timely story makes it even more relatable and relevant.”

Some themes, including the immigration debate and gun violence, are “very much present” today, she said.

This is the first time that students from the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts (JMW), Tolman High School, and Shea High School are collaborating on a musical production.

“It’s such a huge show, we thought it would be nice to unite all three high schools in Pawtucket,” Patrick Dow, musical director, told The Breeze. “Just because (JMW is) the performing arts school doesn’t mean there aren’t performing artists in other schools.”

With the exception of one student from Tolman and one student from Shea, the cast consists of JMW students.

“We hope to expand the program in the future to have more students involved,” said Ricardo Pimentel, JMW’s director and the show’s producer.

“There may have been some intimidation walking into a performing arts high school,” said Dow, who teaches music at Varieur Elementary School in Pawtucket.

Students auditioned last December and the cast of more than 40 began rehearsing in January.

The musical includes music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents. Original direction and choreography are by Jerome Robbins. Set design is by Dave Carney.

This year marks JMW’s third musical production; past shows include “Beauty and the Beast” and “Seussical the Musical.” Neither Tolman nor Shea has a theater program.

On selecting “West Side Story,” Dow said, “We wanted a change. We wanted something even bigger, even harder, more challenging.”

The cast is much larger than in past years, said Cassie Menard, a junior at JMW and stage manager for the musical.

“Trying to navigate through 15 different things happening at once is beautiful chaos. It’s a big show,” she told The Breeze. “The talent is amazing.”

By choosing an “iconic musical that everyone has seen or is familiar with,” Scheff, the artistic director for musical theater program, said there’s a “certain expectation with the quality of the work,” adding that the music and choreography are challenging.

“It’s a lot of heavy lifting on all parts,” said Dow, who has assembled a pit of 21 musicians, including students and teachers from Pawtucket schools and professional musicians. “The music isn’t like anything else out there.”

Students have been stepping up to the challenge, the directors say.

JMW senior Mariela Flores, who’s playing Maria, one of the leads, said the theme of “West Side Story” is about growing up.

“I’m really excited to play Maria. She’s just so sweet, so naive,” she said, adding that she has to “remember what I was like when I was 15.”

Flores, of Central Falls, said it’s fitting that the show this year is about two rival gangs that must unite at the end, given that students from other schools were invited to audition.

“I think (the collaboration is) amazing,” she said. “It’s nice to see even more young artists that weren’t necessarily going to school for art.”

Shea sophomore Elianny Pena, who’s playing Estella, said, “The musical was a way to branch out of Shea but still be in a group. Rehearsals have been great. Everyone here has been very supportive.”

Perla Reyes, a sophomore at Tolman, is playing Anita, “an iconic character in the Spanish community,” she said.

“Auditioning was really nerve-wracking,” Reyes said. “I was the only Tolman student there.”

Reyes said that playing Anita makes her feel like she’s impersonating her grandmother, who was deported to the Dominican Republic last year. The role is “comforting in a sense,” she said.

Even though Reyes doesn’t attend JMW, she said her cast mates “make me feel that I’m part of their community.”

“Hopefully this inspires more Tolman students (to audition in the future),” she said. “I know there’s a lot of talent. A school with over 900 kids, there’s bound to be some talent.”

In another collaboration between Tolman and the local homeschool theater group A Work in Progress Productions, the May performances will feature pieces of the set created by the homeschool group for its earlier production of “Newsies.”

Doors open 30 minutes before showtime. Tickets are $10. Senior and student tickets are $8.

Baby John, played by Isabel Mayers, a junior at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts, on left, and Action, played by Sophia Lemoie, also a junior at JMW, stage a mock fight as members of the Jets during rehearsal for “West Side Story” last Wednesday. For the first time, students from the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Tolman High School, and Shea High School are collaborating on a musical production. The show runs on Friday, May 3 and Saturday, May 4, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, May 5, at 2 p.m. in the Tolman High School auditorium, 150 Exchange St. in Pawtucket.
Riff, leader of the Jets, played by Elijiah Russell, a senior at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts, explains to Baby John, Isabel Mayers, a junior at JMW, why Baby John should join the Jets, saying “If you’re not with the Jets, you’re a nobody.”
Yailie Rodriguez, a senior at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts, who’s playing the role of Francesca in “West Side Story,” dances to the song “America” during rehearsal.