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might seem weird to millennials and Generation Z, and refers to gang members as hoodlums and delinquents, two pretty outdated terms.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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This complete guide of local music, movies, dining and entertainment will have you weekend ready.
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1. Aladdin: "Aladdin" grabs you from the moment the curtain rises on a stage filled with brilliant color. This show requires performers to be expert vocalists, athletic dancers and comic actors, and, for the most part, this touring cast is up to the challenge. Read more
2. Return to Niobrara: "Return to Niobrara," deals with issues that unfortunately are as pertinent today as they were when Chief Standing Bear sued General George Crook in the 1870s: human rights, racism and stereotypes, among others. It's undoubtedly one of the best shows of the past year. Read more
3. South Pacific: Despite a lack of scenery and trims to the script, this production of "South Pacific" had a lot of heart and energy. Read more
4. I and You: What a story "I and You" is, complete with an ending that stunned everyone in the premiere-night audience. And what a group of actors, directors, designers and technicians the theater has chosen to tell it. Read more
5. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is a raw, honest play, performed by actors who understand that. If you're used to rainbows and bluebirds, it will rattle you. But nonetheless, it is a worthwhile production. Read more
6. Of Mice and Men: "Of Mice and Men" is a faithful version of John Steinbeck's legendary novella, with a fine cast of actors, fabulous music evocative of the period and a theater space ideal for the 11-member cast. Read more
7. The Doll-Maker's Gift: "The Doll-Maker’s Gift" looks at the impact of pogroms on Russian Jews in the early 1900s. But it has more to say about kindness and hope, helping adults and children alike believe that the world may just hold more good people than bad. Read more
8. On Your Feet: There isn’t a dud in the cast of "On Your Feet." The touring musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan has lots of energy, a bit of heart and enormous appeal. Read more
9. The Bridges of Madison County: The story behind "The Bridges of Madison County" isn't any more compelling than it ever was. But the Playhouse show, with its first-rate vocal work, acting and production values, is undeniably stunning. Read more
10. Come From Away: "Come From Away" is a warm and witty look at the generosity of a Canadian town to stranded jet passengers during 9/11, and inspires one to be a more generous, caring person. Read more
11. One Man, Two Guvnors: "One Man, Two Guvnors" was ably directed, features a supporting cast every bit as special as the lead actor and captures the best of British comedy in a side-splitting production. Read more
12. Dragons Love Tacos: "Dragons Love Tacos" is aimed squarely at kids. It has an uncomplicated and somewhat repetitive kooky story that doesn’t move too fast. Though I found my mind wandering at times, I derived my joy from seeing the kids' reactions. Read more
13. Men on Boats: "Men on Boats" tells a historical story in an innovative way, and the direction and acting are superb. But figuring out the underlying message was a bit challenging. Read more
14. The Woodsman: "The Woodsman" is everything theater can be. It doesn't need elaborate or expensive embellishments or more than an hour and change to tell a warm, fully realized and absolutely irresistible story. Read more
15. Miss Saigon: "Miss Saigon" has some absolutely breathtaking music, and cast members of the touring Broadway show have some absolutely breathtaking voices. The show's subject matter is still relevant today, and it doesn't pull any punches. Read more
16. Ragtime: "Ragtime" offers a portrait of immigration that contradicts some of the narratives today. It's been my experience in this job that the Playhouse always saves its season-best for last. That's true again this year. Read more
17. She Rocks: Tara Vaughan's "She Rocks" is a tribute to several artists. Sometimes she hewed closely to an idol's original sound, and at other times she got a little crazy. Depending on the song, her voice can be somewhat slight and girlish, folksy and alternative, sexy and just plain powerful. Read more
18. Matilda: Actor Joey Galda is a stitch as the evil Miss Trunchbull in this stage version of Roald Dahl's "Matilda." The rest of the cast, including kids, is pretty special, too. It also has probably the best set I've seen all year. Read more
19. West Side Story: Omaha South High School is using profits from "West Side Story" toward building a visual and performing arts addition on the south end of its campus. The diverse, well-acted, timely production is proof that the money will be well-spent. Read more
20. Hamlet: With artful direction from John Hardy, the gender-reimagined cast in "Hamlet" seamlessly slipped into the text and the action. The actors and their characters transcended gender roles to illuminate human and political archetypes in a compelling way. Read more
21. Into the Woods: I left feeling like I had been there a tad too long and I wasn't too taken by the music in "Into the Woods." But despite my gut reactions, I still enjoyed the experience, particularly the top-notch performers and beautiful sets. Read more
22. Beauty and the Beast: A luminous Belle, buffoonish Gaston, extra-special orchestra and more make this production of "Beauty and the Beast" a good, old-fashioned celebration and a wonderful way to spend a summer night. Read more
23. Rock Twist: Billy McGuigan is so likable, such a good storyteller and such a great showman that despite a few sound deficits, we left the theater grinning and raving about this year's "Rock Twist." McGuigan is real, with a self-deprecating humor and no pretensions. He doesn't take himself too seriously. Read more
24. Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash: "Ring of Fire" features a cast of five performing the Man in Black's hits, plus a set of songs you might not know as well. Actual footage of Cash at varying points in his career was projected on a screen behind the stage. This one is worth your while. Read more
25. Sweat: A Pulitzer-winning script, performances and other details make the show an excellent (if hard to watch) season-opener. But lest you think this show is relentlessly depressing, it’s actually anything but. Strangely enough, I left "Sweat" feeling hope. Read more