"West Side Story" may be based on one of Shakespeare's most memorable works, but for Hannah Thompson and Michael Burns, it's the music and the dancing that drew them in.
"The music has always been one of my favorites, and I never really got into the story until I was preparing for this audition," said Hannah Thompson, a sophomore at Galway who was cast in the role of Anita in the Schenectady Light Opera Company's youth production of the classic Broadway musical opening Friday and running through Nov. 19. "The music is the best. It's out of this world."
As for Michael Burns, a junior at Scotia-Glenville, it was the music and the choreography that got him interested.
"I've always been pretty comfortable singing, but it's the dancing I really have to work at," said Burns, who plays Bernardo. "When I finally get the dancing down, it feels great. Getting a callback for Bernardo was incredible. There's so much fantastic dancing in this show, it really made me feel good to get this part."
Anita and Bernardo make up the other romantic couple in the show, playing complimentary roles to the two leads, Maria (played by Averill Park's Claire Flynn) and Tony (played by Shaker's Nick Contois). The show was first produced on Broadway in 1958 and won two Tony Awards. The story of rival gangs in New York City, "West Side Story" was even a bigger success on film when the 1962 movie with Natalie Wood won 10 Ocars, including Best Picture.
Suzanne Rayome is directing the production, which attracted more than 80 children to the audition process during the summer. Rayome was overjoyed with the turnout, and happy to learn most of the kids were big fans of "West Side Story."
"I consider this show one of the greatest pieces in American musical theater, and it was nice, a real surprise for me, that most of the kids were familiar with it and realized that it was a classic," said Rayome. "It's always been on my bucket list, but it's also one of the toughest shows to produce. Everything about it is big. The orchestration, the choreography, and all of those dance numbers are iconic. If you've seen the movie or seen it on stage, you remember the choreography."
While choreographer Jerome Robbins won a Tony and an Oscar for his choreography, the music, created by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, made the show a huge success in both stage and screen. "Tonight" and "Maria" are just two of the dozen or so songs that Americans have been humming to themselves for decades.
"I first watched the movie on TV because my parents and my grandparents said, 'oh, this is on, let's watch it,'" remembered Burns. "I remember how much I loved it. I loved the show even before I knew I loved the theater."
Thompson was also a huge fan of the show's soundtrack, and when she showed up for auditions for "West Side Story," she would have been happy landing any role.
"I walked into auditions and there was like 50 kids there," she said. "SLOC has such a great reputation throughout the whole Capital Region, I thought it was a great opportunity just to try out. I wasn't expecting to get a role, and I wasn't thinking Anita. I was surprised when I got a callback and just so happy when I got the part."
CBA student George Franklin, a member of one of the Capital Region's most theatrical families, plays Riff. Franklin has two sisters (Julia and Emily) and one brother (Charles) who work consistently in professional theater in New York and around the country.
Among the others in key roles are Paul Amirault (BH-BL) as Officer Krupke, Tyler Barhydt (Niskayuna) as Chino and Patch Gallagher (Shenendehowa) as Baby John. Michael Lotano is the music director and Trish Scott-Dembling is the choreographer. Co-producer Amy Clark said there will be around a dozen musicians in the orchestra pit for the show.
Schools and main actors
There are 32 students making up the cast of SLOC's West Side Story production, representing a total of 14 different schools in the Capital Region.
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake leads the way with eight students, followed by Shenendehowa with six, Niskayuna, Scotia-Glenville and Shaker with three, and Averill Park, Ballston Spa, Bethlehem Central, Broadalbin-Perth, Christian Brothers Academy, Galway, Guilderland and Schalmont, all with one apiece.
Here are the actors playing the five principal characters.
Maria — Claire Flynn (Averill Park); Tony — Nick Contois (Shaker); Anita — Hannah Thompson (Galway); Bernardo — Michael Burns (Scotia-Glenville); Riff — George Franklin (CBA).
'West Side Story'
WHERE: Schenectady Light Opera Company, 427 Franklin St., Schenectady
WHEN: Opens Friday and runs through Nov. 19; performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $28-$22
MORE INFO: 1-877-350-7378, or visit www.sloctheater.org