By: Jazmyn Ortiz
Whenever someone mentions gang violence, the image that probably comes to mind is someone dressed in red or blue on the streets of L.A. The last thing that might come to mind is two musically talented gangs busting a move on the streets of 1950’s New York. This year at McNary, the drama department will be showing the famous musical “West Side Story”.
As most people know, last year’s musical “Hairspray” was wonderfully performed. This year brings about a new musical and another new thing. Mr. Dallas Myers of the drama department is taking over for Mrs. Linda Baker this year. He is now the only teacher in that department. “If I’m the head guy then I’m also the feet,” Myers said. Taking over for Ms. Baker is somewhat difficult, but it is a nice opportunity. But lucky for him, he doesn’t stand alone in directing West Side Story. Mr. Taylor will be helping Myers co direct this complex and up-beat musical.
Myers, the cast, and crew would probably say that “difficult” is an understatement. The biggest piece to learn for the cast is the crazy, fast and fun dancing. It ranges from samba to mambo to cha-cha. There is also plenty of partner dancing, which requires a lot of trust if the pick-ups and big dips are going to work. “Everyone is dripping sweat. It’s tough dancing,” said Myers. “It’ll be fun for [the audience] to see everyone dance, it’s so high energy.” When asked about rehearsals, Tanner Purkey (playing gang member Riff) said that he looks forward to dancing the most. “You don’t feel like you’re working, you’re having fun,” Purkey said. Gerson Escobar (playing gang member Bernardo) didn’t have that role from the beginning. Escobar used to have a different part in the musical until Jesus Mendoza stepped down from the role. “It’s hard because I have to learn new dances and solo dances,” said Escobar. The cast is practicing hard in order to embody the characters of the play.
The cast plays a diverse group of characters. As you already know, Escobar plays Bernardo, a member of the Puerto Rican gang. Purkey plays a member of the Irish gang, Riff. Jesús Gómez and Jill Jungwirth play the star-crossed lovers of the play as Tony and Maria. The two characters are from the rival gangs, and face the challenges of breaking the status quo. The interesting thing about Gomez and Jungwirth is that their characters’ skin colors are the opposite of their color in real life. Tony (Gomez) is from the Irish gang and Maria (Jumgwirth) is from the Puerto Rican gang. A musical very similar to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the cast and crew believe it is something the audience can relate to.
“West Side Story” is not all smiles and laughter. According to Myers, it has relevant themes of today’s society that deal with judgment based on skin color and where people come from. West Side Story also deals with the consequences of those judgments. In order to get the feel of how the hatred and stereotyping is among the characters, the musical uses some uneducated and racial slurs. Although these words are used, cussing and swearing don’t have any room on stage. But Myers is not shying away from harsh stereotyping slurs. “[By not putting in the racial slurs], it would take away from the power of the message,” Myers shares. “You will be able to see how the violence of the gangs affects others outside of the gang,” Jungwirth said. The themes in the musical often show up in our own society. “I’ve seen that people of the same culture stick together and it becomes isolating and it’s not a healthy thing. That is what’s happening in “West Side Story,” Gomez said. The cast and crew all come together to work hard in order to create this message.
Another thing that they work hard at is working as a team. Mr. Myers said, “Everyone needs to know who’s absent and everyone must say hi and goodbye to each other.” Every seventh period the cast and crew work together and really get to know one another, making a better experience for all involved. “At first it felt kind of forced,” confesses Gomez. “But I feel as if taking the initiative to talk to people I don’t know makes [the performance] more natural.” With a hard working cast and crew, the performance day is sure to be a great one. Just like Gomez said, “It’s going to be a McNary show.”
[UPDATE] The musical is planned to be at McNary’s Ken Kollin’s Theatre from 7PM to 10PM on January 21st, 26th and 27th. Dates and times now tentative due to high waters.
Click here to see photos that we took while they were rehearsing.