MORRIS COUNTY — West Side Story, MPAC’s fifth spring production, takes the stage on Friday, June 2 through Sunday, June 4 for four performances. The production will feature a cast of over 40 young performers. Tickets are $20.00 to 25.00.
Since launching annual spring productions five years ago, MPAC Education Director and West Side Story Director Cathy Roy has selected shows that present bold challenges to her cast and crew. “We see so much youth talent at MPAC. They were definitely ready to take on the challenge of West Side Story,” she said.
While the show originally debuted on Broadway in 1957, its subject matter resonates today, another reason Roy was drawn to the material. “We are hoping by telling this powerful story that we can remind our audiences about the power of love in a time of divide and tension in our society,” Roy said.
“People want to believe that we as a country have moved beyond racial discrimination, but it’s still a real issue,” added Christian Harvey (Action), 17, of Randolph, who is appearing in his fifth MPAC production. “There are still people who are scared to show themselves and this show addresses that.”
For young performers, one of the main allures of MPAC’s spring productions is the ability to work with a professional director, choreographer, musical director, actors and backstage crew to truly get a taste of what it’s like to be part of a professional production.
“It’s incredible,” said Alessandra Le Pera (Maria), 19, of Florham Park, who attends Drew University. “It pushes me to work harder. I’m really finding that with that pushing and extra work, I am able to do things I didn’t think I could do before.”
In addition to its cast of over 40 youth performers, Roy cast two Equity guest artists in their mid-20s to portray Tony and Anita. The combination of the younger actors working with the slightly older professional performers gave everyone an opportunity to learn from and be inspired by each other.
“The cast is so energetic and full of love for theater,” said Scott McCreary (Tony), whose professional credits include the national tour of Dirty Dancing and NBC’s The Sing-Off. “It’s great to have this big group of people out on stage that has that type of energy.”
West Side Story’s Music Director Charles Santoro – a relative greybeard for this group at 25 years old – has observed that the younger performers have emulated how the professional actors prepare and rehearse. “When watching a professional performer at work, they pick up those small things that sometimes get overlooked,” he said.
“It really has been wonderful working alongside these young performers and being a role model for them,” adds Lauren Csete (Anita), who has also portrayed Anita in Paper Mill Playhouse’s production. “When I was their age I wish I would have had this experience because I would have learned so much. All of the young actors are professional, talented, sweet and great to work with!
West Side Story is a complicated production, and Roy is using the original Jerome Robbins choreography (adapted by Jayme Wappel) that accompanies the music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
“Vocally, the performers need to stay with their natural sound while feeling comfortable with their meaning behind the music,” Santoro said. “If they don’t understand what they are singing about, then they cannot connect and be one with their character.”
Fortunately, much of the cast has honed those skills through classes at the MPAC Performing Arts School (PAS). Started in 2005, the MPAC PAS is a training ground for students of all abilities ages 5-18 in musical theatre, acting and voice in a nurturing and supportive environment. The PAS has over 25 afterschool and weekend classes per semester, as well as summer camps. Most recently, the school has added classes that use the concepts developed by the L.A.-based Miracle Project which use theater techniques to help children on the autism spectrum to find their voice through the performing arts.
“I feel like all of my hard work and dedication and commitment is finally paying off,” said Christian Harvey, who has taken PAS classes for several years and now also serves as a PAS teaching assistant and Miracle Project peer volunteer. “In every production, Cathy Roy always reminds every single member of the cast, from the smallest part to the leading role, to be true to your character. She has a way of making the actors with the smallest roles feel crucial to the story that is being told. And she’s right!”
The cast has been working hard since February and is excited as the show readies its debut on June 2. “We have done a really great show here,” Csete says. “It’s incredibly riveting.”
The cast and crew hope that people will enjoy what promises to be a performance full of power and passion. “It’s incredible that there are students in high school involved in a show at a theater that is so amazing. Professionals and students coming together to make art. It is art!” La Pera said.
Adds McCreary, “West Side Story is my favorite show. The story is so beautifully written and Tony as a character does everything I’ve wanted to do on stage. I get to fall in love, I get to get married and I get to die all in one day!”
West Side Story will be performed at Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown on Friday, June 2 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, June 3 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 4 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $20.00 or $25.00. Order tickets online at MayoArts.Org or by calling the box office at (973) 539-8008.
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