Omaha South High School is using profits from “West Side Story,” onstage through Saturday, toward building a visual and performing arts addition on the south end of its campus.

The production is proof that the money will be well-spent.

The 1957 musical by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim is an inspired choice for a summer production at the school. Based on “Romeo and Juliet,” it’s the story of rival gangs in 1950s New York City: the Sharks, made up of immigrants from Puerto Rico, and the all-American Jets (who, of course, have plenty of ethnicity and immigration in their families). Lovers Maria and Tony are caught in the middle, with tragic implications.

South has a sizable Hispanic student population, making the show more authentic than it would be elsewhere — especially when you consider that it’s primarily about teenagers.

This is the third summer that the school has collaborated with adults in the theater community, and each show — “In the Heights” and “Once on This Island” — has offered the same opportunity for cast diversity.

Here are a few reasons to make every effort to see “West Side Story” either Friday night or Saturday afternoon:

  • The young people in the cast, made up of students from several area high schools and a couple of universities, completely buy in to the material. That may seem like a given, but it’s not. The script has lots of anachronistic slang (daddy-o, gloryosky, leapin’ lizards) that might seem weird to millennials and Generation Z, and refers to gang members as hoodlums and delinquents, two pretty outdated terms.

Yet in the cast’s enthusiastic hands, the show is nearly as fresh as it was when it premiered. “Gee, Officer Krupke,” chock-full of slang, didn’t seem dated at all (in fact, the guys who played the Jets killed it).

That’s probably because society is still dealing with a lot of the issues it raises (broken homes, poverty, gun violence and peer conflict, for example.)

  • They’re also fine performers, a testament to the quality of drama and music education not only at South, but throughout the metro area. South junior Isabel Gott and Papillion-La Vista South senior Payton Johnson are appealing and engaging as Maria and Tony. They bring a youthful realism to the roles that’s missing in other productions, and both have lovely voices. Other standouts include South alum Kate Madsen as Anita; Jose Galindo as Bernardo, her ill-fated boyfriend; South graduate Kyle Cunningham as Riff, the ill-fated Jet; two University of Nebraska at Omaha students: junior Bri Davis as Rosalia, who beautifully sings the show’s best song (IMHO) “Somewhere”; Jacob Post as the timid Baby John. And, really, every single person who was on the stage.
  • The collaborative nature of the project is inspiring. Students and adults from every corner of the city are involved. Four theater veterans (Keith Allerton, Brett Foster, Scott Fowler and Travis Wilcox) join the kids on stage. Others fill important roles such as music director (Tyler Gruttemeyer, South’s director of music), scenic and lighting designer (Joshua Mullady, who has done 103 shows at local theaters such as the Shelterbelt and the Blue Barn) and choreographer (Roxanne Nielsen, who has choreographed many productions at the Omaha Community Playhouse).

Members of the cast joined backstage workers in painting and building Mullady’s great sets. Other people handled props and operated light and sound boards.

I imagine lots of new friendships were formed as they prepared for this show.

  • A ticket to this show is an investment in the future. It had its glitches (a misbehaving spotlight, a few missing sounds, such as a gunshot, stubborn set pieces between scenes), but it’s cool to think that in a show like this, each gaffe becomes a teachable moment.

I can’t wait to see what South High has planned for next summer.

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Betsie covers a little bit of everything for The World-Herald's Living section, including theater, religion and anything else that might need attention. Phone: 402-444-1267.

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