Rocky Run Middle School Theater Director Valerie Karasek would love to meet the other middle-school teacher who's put on "West Side Story."
"I think this is a first," she said. "Everything that could be difficult about any Broadway show applies to 'West Side Story.' But that's what makes it so exciting."
Her students will present this well-known musical next week. The Wednesday, May 3, show at 7 p.m. is a dress rehearsal, so tickets are $5. They're $6 for all the other performances: Thursday-Saturday, May 4, 5 and 6, at 7:30 p.m. each night, and Sunday, May 7, at 3 p.m.
TICKETS MUST be purchased in advance, either at school or by calling 703-968-3043 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's a complicated production because the songs change tempo and meter all the time, and students have to remember their choreographed dance moves (created by mom Yvonne Henry), as well as their lines. They're also tackling tough and sophisticated material. But, said Karasek, they're up to it.
"We always set the bar high here, and there are moments when I get chills from their acting," she said. "The faculty at Rocky Run will be dumbfounded when they see their passion."
Karasek called "West Side Story" one of the greatest, American musicals ever written. And although it's based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," written more than 400 years ago, she said it's still timely today.
"It deals with love, violence, intolerance and hate, and we still have gangs," she said. "All the racial epithets are still in — they have to be for the story to be powerful. And this story speaks as loudly and powerfully today as it did [when performed on Broadway] in the 1950s."
Karasek said the show's meaningful to middle-school students, in particular, because that's when they're "looking for their identity and are most vulnerable to peer pressure. They're trying to find their allegiance and where they fit in."
"West Side Story" deals with kids who haven't found their place, but have found a home with their friends. And suddenly, it's threatened. Now, Karasek's students will now bring all this turmoil to life on the stage.
"People underestimate what middle-school kids are capable of doing," she said. "It's been a lot of work, but they're doing an awesome job."
PLAYING THE leads, Tony and Maria, are Robert Rainey and Nadine Rousseau. Many other students portray members of the two rival gangs, the Jets (Caucasians) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans).
Eighth-grader Robert, 14, said Tony's "a kid, a year or two older than the other Jets. He used to be a Jet, but he's moved on and is looking for his something. It turns out to be a girl, but he doesn't know it, yet. Once he finds out, he devotes his entire life to her. They try so hard to be together, but their parents are against it because Tony's American and Maria is Puerto Rican."
Robert said his character is a "mature, romantic and truthful person, and a nice guy who says lots of that mooshy stuff." He's enjoying being center stage and singing five songs and says he can relate the show to real life because he, too, is in a relationship with someone." And he's giving it his all because "so much is expected of me — singing the songs right, memorizing all the lines and saying my parts boldly and strong."
He also gets to show a range of emotions ranging from "elated happiness to extreme sadness." Robert especially likes singing "Maria" because "I have a powerful voice and I get to show that off." And he says the audience will love the way the story goes from "hilarious comedy to biting-your-fingernails suspense to tear in your eyes at the sad parts."
Playing Maria, seventh-grader Nadine, 13, describes her as initially "a shy, little kid, excited about being in America. But she evolves into an independent woman making choices. She and Tony fall in love at first sight and are willing to risk everything to continue their relationship."
Now that she's had lots of rehearsals, Nadine says she's really comfortable with her role. "It's fun to be somebody different than you, and I like singing on stage," she said. The hard part, she said, is "Acting like I'm in love with Tony, because Robert's a year older than me and I didn't know him before."
Her favorite song is the "Tonight" ensemble because of its emotion. Pleased with how well things are going, she said, "The audience will really appreciate how people our age can pull off something so dramatic."
Max Ehrlich, 13, portrays Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. "We think we're 10 times tougher than the Jets," he said. "Bernardo is a showoff who thinks he's tough and cool. He's also overprotective of his sister Maria."
THE TOUGHEST part, he said, is remembering to say his lines with a Puerto Rican accent. But he's enjoying the role because "I'm not the toughest guy in real life. But in the play, I'm a tough gang leader."
Max also likes the "Tonight" ensemble where "each side talks about how they'll beat the other one and will be 'tough, no matter what.' Adrenalin's pumping." And he says the audience will like the production's "action, excitement, deep drama and climax."
Rajni Rao, 14, plays Anita, "Bernardo's spicy, Puerto Rican girlfriend. And she's not the norm because she tells her boyfriend what to do. She knows about Tony and Maria's relationship and doesn't approve, but is tolerant of it because she doesn't think it's serious. She's mature, yet has a fun side; she's also strong-minded and has an edge."
Rajni likes portraying someone so "out there, bold and always herself. At first, I'm fun and flirty and, later on, serious and emotional." She says it's hard "depicting what's going through Anita's mind in the tragic parts," but she's glad she gets to do lots of dancing and "grow a little as a performer." As for the audience, she said, "They'll love it. They'll be really into it — and then we're gonna break their hearts."
Playing Riff, the leader of the Jets, is Michael Monte, 13. "He's really cool and everybody wants to be his friend," said Michael. "He's a tough guy and everybody looks up to him. It's fun 'cause I get to boss everybody around."
Hardest for him, said Michael, are his two solos. His favorite part is the fight with "knives" at the end. He says the audience will like the fight best because "it's the most exciting scene."
Mike Doherty, 14, plays a Jet named A-rab. "He's enthusiastic, kind of hyper and likes playing cards," said Mike. "It's fun to act completely different from myself." Hardest, he said, is balancing homework with rehearsals. But he enjoys acting and meeting new people. Said Mike: "There's a really good group of people in this show."
Portraying a Jet named Baby John is Andrew Sanchez, 13. "I'm the youngest in the gang and my character doesn't really like to fight — he's kinda chicken," he said. "But he wants to fit in and be cool." And although it's tricky acting tough and cowardly at the same time, Andrew likes having lots of lines to say.
Drew Merrell, 14, plays the Jet nicknamed Action. "He's the most energetic person in the gang — ready to beat up the Sharks —and one step ahead of everybody else," explained Drew. "He's usually mad at the world; his parents don't treat him well, so he ends up a delinquent."
THIS IS the role Drew hoped for after seeing Madison High do this show. "I think he's definitely the most animated character and has the biggest story to tell," he said. "And the audience will like the humor in songs such as 'Officer Krupke' and the choreography in the songs 'Cool' and 'America.' In addition, said Drew, "We're doing original stuff like having narrators."
Playing the character Anybodys is Hanna Dickinson, 13. "I want to be a Jet, but they won't let me because I'm annoying and a girl," she said. "I'm trying to prove myself worthy and try to be part of the fights, but they don't want me around."
She said it's fun being in the fights because "no other girl gets to do that." And she said the audience will be surprised at the students' talent: "We've worked really hard, so I think they'll like it."
Collin McClain, 14, plays Diesel. "He's one of the taller, stronger Jets who enjoys working with cars," said Collin. "He's laid back, but he's there if anyone needs backup in a fight. I like my lines, and my girlfriend in the play is my girlfriend in real life, so that's an added bonus."
Portraying Big Deal is Chris Albrigo, 14. "I'm the dorkiest guy in the Jets and in the play," he said. "But I like it because my guy has an incessant itch so I get to be jerky, twitchy and nervous. My favorite song is 'Officer Krupke' because we get to let loose and do goofy things."
Kyle Moriarty, 14, is Snowboy, a troublemaking Jet. "I like to steal stuff and sneak into the movies," said Kyle. "It's fun being in the play, making new friends and talking to old ones. And I get to beat up a high-school kid."
Gary Kochetkov, 13, is stage manager/lighting director and helps run sound. "I make sure all the lights are hung in the right place and focused in the right direction," he explained. "I make certain looks for day and night and use special, blue lighting for scene changes and reds for dramatic parts."
He also rewrote almost the entire music score "because the actors have lower or higher voice ranges." But he's thrilled with the responsibility of all his jobs. "I'm a technically oriented person," said Gary. "And I like the challenge and risk of having to do all this by myself."