When the founders of the Chrysalis Stage Advanced Performing Arts Conservatory in Sharon chose “West Side Story” for their inaugural performance, they knew it wouldn’t be an easy show for their cast of high school students.
Leonard Bernstein’s music and Jerome Robbins’ choreography are difficult for experienced adults, let alone a group of high school kids, some of whom have no experience in either, faculty members said.
“When we conceived of this project, it was always meant to be an enormous stretch in all the different directions,” said Robert Russo, Chrysalis Stage’s executive and producing director. “We started with a very difficult musical as the first one, but we did it for a reason: so that all of you guys can connect to the material.”
That’s part of what makes Chrysalis Stage different from, say, a high school production. The performers are not just learning notes and steps: they also are learning about the show’s themes, its place in the history of theater and what makes it relevant some 60 years after its Broadway run, organizers said.
Dr. Joanne K. Scarvell, the director of curriculum, held classroom sessions with the students to trace the show — a love story that emerges from rival street gangs in 1950s New York — back to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and the Roman poet Ovid, whom Shakespeare recognized as the artistic father of the material.
She said she led students through the show’s psychological and emotional nuances.
“West Side Story” is “so relevant today because of what’s going on in our culture with bigotry and hatred,” said Scarvell, whose husband, Joe, is artistic and education director for the school and the show’s director.
“We’re getting to talk about those things and understand those things and understand what our performances mean to the audience,” she said. “We have a responsibility relating to the audience in a way others can’t. We’re going to do it through song and dance and acting.”
Joe Scarvell marveled at the work ethic of the two dozen performers, who come from schools in Brookfield, Howland and throughout the Shenango Valley area. No matter what the instructors are doing, “You’re not sitting around talking about school or boyfriends or girlfriends,” he said. “You’re working.”
Brookfield High School students McCleese Graybill and Sarah Hackett said they joined Chrysalis Stage because the Brookfield Drama Club does not stage musicals. Sarah, a junior, said she was naive in her expectations of what would be required to perform in a musical.
“The dances that we’re doing, I’ve never really done this before,” the junior said. “We didn’t think it was going to be this much work.”
Through the demands of the material, they are finding something out about themselves, they said.
“At first, I didn’t think I was going to be able to do anything,” said McCleese, a senior. “I see myself doing it, now.”
“It’s been really fun,” Sarah added. “You learn something new every day.”
While Chrysalis Stage was conceived as a bridge between high school and formal theater education, Russo said he recognizes that many of his students might not go on to be professionals or even community theater performers. That doesn’t make the training any less relevant, he said.
“You can take those skills into life, whether you stick with theater forever or not,” Russo said.
Chrysalis Stage Advanced Performing Arts Conservatory will stage “West Side Story” at 7 p.m. Jan. 18 and 19 and 24-26, and 3 p.m. Jan. 20 and 27 at the Armory of the Arts, 49. S. Sharpsville Ave., Sharon, adjacent to LuLu Beans Cafe.
Tickets are now on sale at the conservatory’s web site, thechrysalisstage.org, and will be sold at the door the night of the shows.