The storyline: Two feuding families become two warring New York City gangs — the white Jets, led by Riff, and the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo. Their hatred escalates to a point where neither can co-exist with any form of understanding. But when Riff’s best friend (and former Jet), Tony, and Bernardo’s younger sister, Maria, meet at a dance, no one can do anything to stop their love. Maria and Tony begin meeting in secret, planning to run away. Then the Sharks and Jets plan a rumble under the highway — whoever wins gains control of the streets. Maria sends Tony to stop it, hoping it can end the violence. It goes terribly wrong, and before the lovers know what’s happened, tragedy strikes and doesn’t stop until the climactic and heartbreaking ending.
“West Side Story” is the award-winning adaptation of the classic romantic tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet”, and it’s this story that the students at Queen’s College (Q.C.) will bring to the stage in their latest Broadway Over Queen’s production.
It’s a production the school last did 13 years ago under the direction of Keith Wisdom. Current producer and director Gregory Deane felt it was high time the play was redone.
“The story itself — the war between the warring factions, the gangs involved — and the fact that love still overcomes everything, those are still relevant themes even today,” said Deane as his 53-strong cast was in final days of preparation for its three-day (March 15–17) run at The Geoffrey Brown Auditorium.
On deciding what to present this year, Deane said he initially thought of doing a production that required a small cast, but in the end decided on “West Side Story”, which requires a bigger cast, and which in turn would get a larger draw in terms of the crowd.
The school’s last production was “Grease” in 2016. The romantic cult hit was brought to the Bahamian stage coincidentally on the heels of Fox’s televised adaptation of the 1971 musical, which was also made into a movie in 1978 and starred John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and Stockhard Channing.
Every performance of “Grease” played to a sold-out audience at The Geoffrey Brown Auditorium.
With “Grease”, the head of the modern languages department did a little twist, making it relevant to the modern Bahamian times. With “West Side Story”, he said, they are trying to remain as true to the original story as possible.
“Ultimately, you’re dealing with a Bahamian cast, you’ll let a couple ‘Bahamian-isms’ and references to present time slip in there, but we’re not doing a Bahamian version of ‘West Side Story’. We’re trying to remain as true to the original story as possible.”
“West Side Story” is based on a 1957 Broadway play written by American playwright Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and choreographer Jerome Robbins, who in turn based it on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The play was adapted for the film by American screenwriter Ernest Lehman. The movie won the 1962 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture.
Dominic Rollins, who played Kenickie in “Grease”, returns in “West Side Story” in one of the major roles as Bernardo from the Sharks.
Deane held auditions for the production in mid-October 2017, made cast selections, and they’ve been rehearsing ever since, mindful of the fact that some of their students are so busy with academics and extracurricular activities that they can only participate in a certain number of rehearsals a week.
A week to the show’s opening, Deane was calm as he saw the production finally coming together. Two weeks out, though, he said he was in panic mode.
Deane said he tends to panic when he doesn’t see things moving, which at the time was the case with the set. But with days to the curtain going up, he said the set was coming together, which allowed him to relax a bit.
“There are one or two scenes that just need to tighten up on, but I think we’re in really excellent standing to open on Thursday.”
Both the actors and backstage hands get involved with preparing the set for the production. The work counts toward much-needed community service hours, which are a requirement to graduate. The production offers an opportunity for everyone.
The director and producer said the school’s administration budgeted well for this year’s production. In certain aspects, he said, they cut back on the number of major pieces that had to be built for “Grease”, but the “West Side Story” set is just as impressive, if not even more so than “Grease”.
At Q.C., they believe in catering to a wide cross-section of young people. As a fully comprehensive school operating under the Bahamas Conference of the Methodist Church, their interest lies not only in academic excellence, but also in raising well-rounded, courteous, spiritually grounded global citizens. To that end, the school affords students the opportunity to participate in a number of activities and clubs, some of the most popular being the productions staged under their Broadway Over Queen’s banner.
Shawn Turnquest, Q.C. vice principal and head of school, has expressed pride in the school’s performing arts program.
Turnquest in a previous interview said their students travel extensively, and they ensure that they are exposed to the arts in major cities, such as London, Atlanta and New York. For those students who can’t afford to make the international trips, the school brings the theater to them.
Deane himself while a student at the institution, participated in productions such as “Oliver”, “Guys and Dolls”, “Fiddler on The Roof” and “Oklahoma” in the late 70s and early 80s.
Having taken to the stage himself, the “West Side Story” producer and director previously told The Nassau Guardian that the value of the experience is almost immeasurable to children, and is important in the education process.
“You can’t really put a value on the worth of the experience,” he said. “If nothing else, the kids will remember their participation in a high school musical. We’ve always encouraged students to pursue performing arts, dramatic arts and visual arts,” said Deane.
“There are so many students who are not specifically about academics. Our whole overall belief that we’ve got kids who are academic — those who are involved in sports, those who are interested in theater and music and performing arts as well. So in keeping with that theme and wanting to promote the Broadway musical and other genres of music, I just want to promote the fact that there are other sorts of music, other sorts of dance out there, and kids just need to be exposed. And some of our kids are so talented, and the more we practice, the more engrossed they become in the whole story in their own personal performances and portrayals of characters. Those sorts of experiences – being in a high school musical – is something that you will remember for a long time. And it’s just such an awesome bonding experience. There’s so many things that divide young people nowadays that this is one of those things that call people together … people who are athletes, people who are academic, and people who enjoy music, and dance, and acting. It’s a worthwhile experience to carry away from Queen’s College once they’ve graduated.”
The “West Side Story” production will be Deane’s fifth production as producer and director, following “Grease”. Before that play, the school staged “Guys and Dolls”, and in the years prior to that, there were two revue shows, “Broadway Over Queen’s 1” and “Broadway Over Queen’s 2”.
“West Side Story” show times are Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the high school office, telephone 677-7616.