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Churchill Tries to Live Up to 'Story'

Hoffman, Voightmann lead in staging of Broadway classic.

The word that keeps coming up during rehearsals for “West Side Story” at Winston Churchill High School is “classic.”

Churchill’s last two musicals — “Big” and “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” — were contemporary choices meant to interest younger audiences and broaden Churchill performers’ repertoires.

But “West Side Story," scheduled for Nov. 11, 12, 18 and 19 at the school, is a musical classic, cast members said and requires a very special treatment.

“Since it’s a classic, we want to live up to its greatness and everything it is. We put in the extra effort,” said senior Jonathan Carty, who plays Riff. “That’s going to make it such an amazing show.”

“Because many people know it so well you have a pressure to do it right,” said junior Talia Gottlieb, playing 'Anybodys' in her first musical role at Churchill. “That’s part of the fun of it. Because people love it and they can share it with you and they know what’s going on. It’s a classic.”

“WEST SIDE STORY” is the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim rehashing of “Romeo and Juliet” set in 1950s Manhattan. The updated Montagues and Caputlets are rival youth gangs: the white Irish Jets and the immigrant Puerto Ricans, the Sharks.

Juniors Ben Hoffman and Andi Voightmann lead as Tony and Maria, the lovers who defy their rival kin to be together.

The more than 50-person cast also features Rami Ayyub as Shark leader Bernardo, Amy Tilles as Anita, and Sam Pargament as Officer Krupke.

The musical opened on Broadway in 1957. The 1961 film adaptation of “West Side Story” won the Oscar for best picture that year.

Churchill has responded to the show’s stature with ambitious staging and a cast that has high expectations of itself.

Special features of the Churchill production include a set that puts the orchestra on stage — obscured behind some its ubiquitous grainy wooden planks — and the inclusion of the ballet dream sequence featured in the original Broadway production (see related story). The school also hired a fight coordinator to choreograph the clashes between the show’s rival gangs. And performers sing through wireless microphones, part of a new, state-of-the-art sound system the school installed this year.

But long before cast members got to try out the new mikes, it began months of rehearsals not with singing and choreography, but with character work.

“We did some acting exercise to get them to understand … to get them to portray the hatred and the ignorance,” said director Jessica Speck. I wanted to try to make it more than cartoonish anger.”

Students wrote character histories that explained why they had become part of the New York gangs. Students said that the story and the characters resonate today in spite of the show’s age.

“It’s based off of 'Romeo and Juliet' and I think that’s kind of a timeless story that never dies,” Carty said. “I think the language, although it may seem kind of outdated … does carry over very well because it's just spastic teenagers who are ready to bust. It is very modern in that way.”

Tapping into that restlessness was made easier by a rehearsal schedule that codified the divide between the Sharks and the Jets.

“Because the rehearsals were divided into Sharks and Jets ... that’s how we experienced it,” Gottlieb said. “The Jets become really close and the Sharks become really close. That division happens, but at the same time these are all your friends.”

That division, added to the meticulous character work, fueled the performers’ commitment to their characters.

“I haven’t nailed it yet. I don’t think any of us really have,” Hoffman said in an interview less than two weeks before the first performance. “They’re very strong characters and very real characters. Each character has a very long list of traits and a very unique personality that you have to live up to.”

BUT STUDENTS said they would be ready. They paid little mind to the fact that nearby Walt Whitman High School is simultaneously staging “West Side Story” Nov. 11 and 12, their opening weekend.

The only competition, they said, was with themselves.

“We’re just trying to do our own thing,” said Voightmann, who has a friend in the Whitman production.

Carty added, “We’re going to be ready. We would not let ourselves go on stage if we weren’t.”