Initially, Hellen Cabrera De Oliveira auditioned for The Highwood Theatre’s all-student production of “West Side Story” for reasons other than the show itself.
“What appealed to me is how they wanted to make the production in the round, and how we would have master classes with Broadway performers Nick Blaemire and Cate Caplin [affiliated with Highwood],” said De Oliveira, who previously was a dance captain for “James and the Giant Peach” and a young boy in “All My Sons” at the theater.
However, artistic director Matthew Nicola said all the actors became “completely entranced” by the 1957 musical, arguably one of the most beloved to come to Broadway. Based loosely on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the show pits the love of two young people from different backgrounds against warring ethnic gangs in New York City, with inevitable tragedy.
Presenting what he calls a “timeless piece” has “always been in the back” of Nicola’s mind. “I was just looking for the right time to do it. It has been an amazing journey.”
The “right time” is partly the centennial year of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, who composed the music and such memorable songs as “Maria,” “Somewhere,” “and “Tonight.”
Arthur Laurents wrote the book, and Stephen Sondheim, the lyrics. Jerome Robbins conceived, directed, and choreographed.
Nicola, directing with student Dylan Kaufman, said “West Side Story” is Highwood’s first year-long production. It began with auditions last August; rehearsals have increased steadily since.
Once they began, De Oliveira found other reasons for enthusiasm, including the character of Maria, a newly-arrived Puerto Rican who falls in love with Tony, a Polish-American.
“Trying to understand Maria’s motives behind many of the drastic decisions she makes was a challenge for me,” De Oliveira said. “I believe Maria is very strong and brave, although she is also naive and innocent. Many characters in the show feel as if they must protect Maria because of her innocence, so she keeps quiet and respects them. But there come points in the show where ... she just can’t hold anything back any longer.”
Henry Wiebe who plays the male lead, saw a “spectacular production” at the Signature Theatre a few years ago, as well as the 1961 movie.
“It’s one of my favorite plays,” he said, adding that the music is “very difficult but beautiful.”
For Wiebe, “Tony is a bright-eyed, naive optimist who yearns for something, yet doesn’t really know what that ‘something’ is. When he meets Maria, that ‘something’ is immediately fulfilled, and he basically becomes ignorant to everything else that happens in his life. I see Tony as one of the only spots of innocence in a world that is otherwise morally corrupt, and that corruption is ultimately what leads to his death.”
However, it’s too easy to conclude that Tony is “blameless” for the bloodshed around him,” he added. “He has to be at least partially responsible because he acts with the assumption that his true love will prevail over the hatred that surrounds him, without any regard to the delicate nature of the situation he has created for himself and Maria.”
The production has 25 roles and 25 orchestra players, the largest Highwood has assembled so far.
The theater is using the musical’s original score, which seemed a “natural” to Nicola.
As to the in-the-round aspect, Nicola said: “We always try to do an immersive experience. There are so many different sides to the play, and this offers an individualized experience for each audience member in an intimate space.”
Highwood presented “Romeo and Juliet” on May 18-20 to underscore “West Side Story’s” literary roots. The musical runs June 1-10 at The Siena School, 1300 Forest Glen Rd, Silver Spring, MD 20901. For more information, visit the theater’s website at www.thehighwoodtheatre.org.