Even if you've seen the movie or the stage rendition of "West Side Story," Encinal High School's production will be an entirely new experience.
The show's accompaniment will be symphonic. The actors have surprisingly beautiful voices. Part of the action involves the audience. Characters, even their clothing, will seem fresh and modern.
Dancing, choreographed by Amy Moorhead, is sure to be exciting. The show's ending makes a strong point.
If you have attended any earlier Encinal productions you will probably recognize the girl playing Maria, Allie Villa. She sang major roles in "Rent" and "Sound of Music" utilizing a lovely voice that reaches up to high C. In "Carousel" Villa didn't sing, but she danced a long ballet-type solo expressing the feelings of a lonely teenage girl.
Lechelle Finley, a small girl with a big voice, sings the role of Maria's best friend, Anita. Finley does not have the acting experience of Villa, but her portrayal is strong. Songs like "America" and "A Boy Like That" virtually send sparks flying.
Director Robert Moorhead has been ill for more than two weeks, which is particularly frustrating since he loves doing "West Side Story." In 1995 he directed the show in Encinal's cafeteria — a far smaller venue than the refurbished gymnasium. Back then, when the boys had their "rumble," much of the action was all around the cafeteria chairs and tables. This was so effective that Moorhead has expanded it for the current production. While he is ill, directing chores have been taken over by his choreographer wife, Amy — an accomplished dancer who had a role in "Phantom of the Opera" when it played in San Francisco.
"We do a full-scale musical here at least every two years," Moorhead says. "When we did 'Rent' I realized we had many strong male actors, which led us directly to 'West Side Story.' There are 60 people in the cast, most of them male. Matthew Strasser brings a once-in-a-lifetime tenor voice to his role as Tony. He is a strong actor, and his rendition of 'Maria' is deeply moving. Matthew has been in a number of our shows. He was Mark in 'Rent' and Mr. Snow in 'Carousel.'"
A big change in this show is the first-time use of a full symphony orchestra for accompaniment. Colorado Symphony tapes entire musical scores and then rents them out to schools and theaters.
"It should come off far better than simply a piano and a cello," Moorhead said. "And the people who are handling the sound can be right in front of the stage at the back of the auditorium where they can monitor the sound since they are hearing exactly what the audience hears."
Moorhead sees "West Side Story" as more than Leonard Bernstein's and Stephen Sondheim's reworking of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."
"We've updated it so that when you're watching the boys you can't really tell who's on whose side. They could be anybody who has nothing much to do, so they turn to violence.
"Maria and Tony really want a better world — a world where love can be at home. In the end all the boys carry a body together — out through the audience. They are cooperating — all parts of the American fabric."