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TJ Students Play It Cool in 'West Side Story'

A gust of brass and pulsing percussion blast over the speaker system as a score of dancers coalesce into a stepping, snapping ooze of cool. The performers slide in their high-top Converses and shiny character shoes, beating their fists together until a palpable pounding is felt through the air. "Play it cool, boy, real cool," murmurs senior Ian Buchanan. With a slip and a slide, he's back snapping away with the Jets.

The actors of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology's "West Side Story" rest for a moment from their last number. The musical, set for April 15, 16, 22, and 23 of this year, is director and Jefferson drama teacher Kathie West's final production at the school.

"SINCE IT'S GOING to be my last show, I wanted it to have a message," said West. "The tech and acting ability of students here at TJ is astounding. I think their talent shows that the arts are just as important as the sciences in education."

West couldn't have chosen a more striking musical to be her ultimate at Jefferson. The play is a modern-day version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," its message shedding light on the purity of young, though tragic, love. With music and lyrics by the phenomenal and timeless talents of Leonard Bernstein and Stephan Sondheim, the work has become a staple among Broadway masterpieces.

The plot revolves around two lovers, Maria and Tony, each from rival gangs: the Sharks and the Jets. Both infatuates struggle to keep their relationship alive, but, through a tragic turn of events, street violence escalates into a horrific finale.

Senior Sam Willmott and sophomore Kate Kirschner, each playing the leads of the musical, found themselves impacted by the emotional depth of the passion in the play.

"At first I found Tony a little shallow," said Willmott. "I thought he was one-dimensional. But one-dimensional is the embodiment of feelings that we all wish we could express sometimes. [Tony] has very pure, unadulterated love, and, a lot of times today, that feeling is overlooked."

Kirschner too found herself identifying with Maria. "I could relate to her a lot," she said. "She's so emotional all the time, almost to a fault."

THE REHEARSALS for the musical, though containing a tangible air of anxiety and stress, were sporadically interrupted by comedic interludes. When a tension came over the room at one point — apparently, some extras had been murmuring discontent for their lesser roles — Buchanan interrupted. "You know," he said with a solemn, scowling face, "I really didn't want the role of Maria that bad — you didn't have to tell everyone."

The joke broke some strain on the room as the 67 actors and actresses giggled with easy, loose grins.

As they stretched out and prepared to disperse into separate rehearsals for individual numbers, junior Anna Hunter, playing Anita, the role of Maria's feisty co-worker and friend, stopped to wax on the chemistry of the musical's players.

"I feel like, for me, Anita's relationship with Bernardo [Senior Graham Halstead] is emerging even more through dancing with Graham than through the script."

"The performers look out for each other," said Hunter. "No one's been left behind in learning choreography. The audience can really tell if a cast is friendly and comfortable when they're performing, and our teamwork is going to shine through once we're on stage."