Timeless tale of urban life and love on tap at Haddonfield Memorial High School

“West Side Story” to take its bow in March as spring musical

Members of the rival gangs Sharks (left) and Jets (right) rehearsing a scene from the upcoming Haddonfield Memorial High School production of “West Side Story,” while director Matt DiDonato (center) looks on, during the Sun’s visit on Feb. 14.

Long before the National Hockey League brought together two of its franchises for clashes on ice, New York City gangs called the Jets and Sharks battled for control of turf in the concrete jungle of Manhattan.

Featuring a cast, crew, and orchestra of 80 students, Haddonfield Memorial High School’s upcoming production of “West Side Story” is one of the most enduring examples of a musical that tackles serious issues — in this case race relations between the children of established white European residents and recent immigrants from Puerto Rico.

In this urban adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” which first hit the stage in 1957 before becoming a hit movie four years later, Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers are reimagined as Tony and Maria — two teenagers in the Upper West Side during the late 1950s. The feuding Montagues and Capulets are replaced with teenage street gangs and the mercurial worlds they inhabit.

“‘West Side Story’ is a gift,” said HMHS science teacher and director Matt DiDonato. “This rich material has really helped our students grow as actors, musicians, and theater technicians. Together as a group focused on one goal of telling a meaningful story in an authentic way, we have also grown in compassion and empathy. The HMHS Drama Club has taken on some big challenges in recent years, and this show is no exception.”

Everyone involved with the production has worked hard to research the history and explore the social implications of the work in addition to preparing the scenes, music, and dances.

“I’ve been involved in the musical for my entire high school career, and I decided I wanted to continue with this story. I auditioned for the part of Tony, but received Bernardo. It’s a very difficult role to portray, since he is Puerto Rican in the show … and I’m not,” said senior Mark Vaughn who will tackle the role of leader of the Sharks and Maria’s older brother: We’re taking it in a different direction because musicals allow for a certain amount of interpretation.”

Vaughn said the key to making this particular version relevant and real, is that all of the Sharks are being trained to emulate accents as closely as possible.

“What we’ve done is add dialect coaching from the Spanish teachers here, one of whom is from Puerto Rico. And we’re doing our best to make the accent as authentic as possible to make sure we don’t make a caricature of (Puerto Rican characters). Ultimately, we want to present the themes of the production which is most important, especially in these times, without insulting anyone who is the subject of the show.”

When The Sun attended rehearsals on Feb. 14, actors who portrayed both the Jets and the Sharks were moving right along, with the only interruptions in acting out their scenes due to minor technical adjustments from DiDonato.

It was clear they’ve been together long enough to not only bond within their own groups, but also to carefully memorize each step and note and lyric throughout various set pieces. Rehearsals have been ongoing since the previous summer, but picked up in intensity once school resumed from holiday break in January.

“What you’re seeing now is something they’ve (the Jets) done maybe once or twice before. They’re just cleaning it up a bit and getting things set. We’re getting close to tech week and close to setting everything up, so we are finishing things we haven’t covered before and polishing it all up,” Vaughn said.

HMHS sophomore Anna Forebaugh (left) and junior Will Tully (right) star in “West Side Story” as star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony. They rehearsed an intimate and crucial scene in the musical on Feb. 14.

Sophomore Anna Forebaugh and junior Will Tully play the main romantic leads, Maria and Tony. They did not really know each other outside of the drama club and last year’s musical, “Sister Act,” since their age difference precluded them having the same classes together. However, they both said chemistry between them was not hard to find and build on.

“A lot can be found in Leonard Bernstein’s score and in the script of the show. The way they speak to each other and the way they sing is just beautiful, I think,” Forebaugh said. “Looking at it all together, we were able to find a lot of ways to portray that relationship.”

Aside from romantic and ethnic entanglements, another primary theme to the musical is wishing for a better place, a better time and better things in life.

“We have to find our characters and their motivations and the way that relationships work in basically every show, is how different motives clash or come together. So I think the chemistry between Tony and Maria comes from the fact that they both want to escape their lives and find a new one, a better one,” Tully said. “There’s literally a song in the show called ‘Somewhere,’ where they try to find it.”

Performances of “West Side Story” are set for March 8, 9, 15, and 16 at 7:30 p.m. and March 10 at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $12 with a discounted rate of $10 for students and seniors. Tickets may be purchased at the door or in advance in the main office during school hours.