Thursday, May 15, 2008


Leah Kohn, class of 2008, writes: HHS's production of "West Side Story" would have been impressive merely for the sheer athleticism of its 60-member cast. There was a great deal of ensemble dancing, well-choreographed and performed smoothly and confidently. Whether dancing or not, the actors clambered and swung with great energy around the metal bars representing the modern cityscape. Even the less stylized fight scenes were relatively convincing. During the knife fight between Riff and Bernardo I found myself growing nervous.

The intensity was remarkable, the energy was high, and the audience was carried along with it and became completely absorbed in the story. It flowed. Not all of the emotional high points came across successfully, but very many of them did, and in such a dark and dramatic musical, this was a triumph. And while the Puerto Rican accents weren't completely convincing, and HHS students may not be naturally suited to play New York gang members, I can say with absolute conviction that it was a huge success.
Overall, the singing was at a high level. Both lead singers did an admirable job with very strenuous roles. Rebecca Whittington had just the right combination of innocence, youthful flirtatiousness, and determination for the part of Maria, and her voice was remarkably pretty. I was especially impressed with her high notes, which lacked that slightly strained quality that plagues so many young singers. Max Redman as Tony had several long solos ("Something's Coming" and "Maria") in which he was the only one on stage, and he gave excellent and energetic performances, without showing any signs of fatigue. He and Becca sang well together in duets, had good romantic chemistry onstage, and in general made a very convincing portrait of teenage infatuation.

The other main roles were also well played. Mila Pinigin was sultry and captivating in the role of Anita. She shone in her solo in "Tonight," and I thought that her anger and sorrow in "A Boy Like That" was one of the emotional high points of the show. Another performance that caught my attention was the beginning of "Cool," sung by Mark Whittington (Riff). It was incredibly musical, edgy and exciting.

Without a doubt the number that got the most applause was "Gee, Officer Krupke", sung by the Jets. And deservedly so, because it was absolutely hilarious and the audience was roaring with laughter the entire time (but not so much as to drown out the singers).

I really did not notice any weak members of the cast. There were many smaller roles, which I have not mentioned, which were well acted and, in many cases, extremely funny. I can only imagine the amount of rehearsal and hard work which went into creating a production of this quality.

And of course, the unsung (and unsinging) heroes of the evening were the members of the pit orchestra (which included five HHS students as well as local professionals) and the production staff. In a cramped space to the side of the stage, the pit orchestra had to play Bernstein's challenging music constantly for nearly three hours. They did a wonderful job. And then there were the many students who have spent the past few months working on designs, sets, costumes, lighting, sound, makeup, props, and a hundred other completely essential tasks while struggling to adjust to a new performance space and the numerous challenges it brought. Also much deserving of recognition are the director, Alan Haehnel, the musical director, Jane Woods, and the choreographer, Denise Frawley.

I was not entirely convinced by the opening of the show. I'm not sure what the director intended by having gang paraphernalia descend from the sky to be plucked up by a few of the actors. Perhaps he meant that we are all the same, but are forced into different roles? The issue of common humanity lost in senseless rivalry is certainly central to West Side Story (and Romeo and Juliet), but I would much rather have had the story speak for itself, rather than be informed beforehand what the message was.

The same was true of the ending. All the gang members on both sides reacted to Tony's death and Maria's grief by pulling off their gang bandannas and leather wristbands and joining hands. This seemed a bit forced and over the top, at the end of a story so realistic in its terrifying and inevitable spiral into tragedy.

Nick Sinnott-Armstrong, class of 2009, adds: HHS has a long history of producing Shakespearean plays and adaptations. One feature that set this production apart was its size. In fact, at 60 cast members, it is the largest HHS Footlighters production ever, larger even than the 56-member 1987 production of The Sound of Music. This year’s cast and crew equals almost 10% of HHS’s student body. What this means is that almost every class in school had at least one person involved in "West Side Story."

Two instructors returned from the last Footlighters "West Side Story" in 1999. Mr. Bill returned as Footlighters Advisor and Technical Coordinator, while Mrs. Woods continued as choral, orchestral, and musical director. The director for this show, Alan Haehnel, has worked with Footlighters before. He closed the old auditorium with Footloose two years ago and opened the new one with "West Side Story."