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Jets, Sharks of ‘West Side Story’ fight for turf

 Are you ready to rumble?  Or mamba?  Northern Light Opera Company presents “West Side Story” from July 31-Aug. 2 and Aug. 6-8 at Armory Square in downtown Park Rapids.  Two teens from rival street gangs meet and fall in love in this acclaimed musical.  “West Side Story” was born of the collaborative efforts of three theater geniuses – composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and choreographer Jerome Robbins.  

 “Leonard Bernstein’s music provides some significant challenges to singers and instrumentalists. However, the rewards are great,” says NLOC music director Paul Dove.  “‘West Side Story’ is a classic that has been performed in theaters and opera houses around the world.”  Set in 1957, the musical depicts tension between the Jets and Sharks as they battle over turf in New York City’s West Side.  The stakes are raised when Tony, an Anglo teen associated with the Jets, falls in love with Maria, a Puerto Rican girl whose brother, Bernardo, is the Shark’s leader.

 As with most masterpieces, the tale remains timeless.   “West Side Story” was one of the first musicals to take place in an inner city and address serious social issues like racism, urban violence, gang warfare and disillusionment with the American Dream.  The original Broadway production won two Tony Awards in 1958.  The film won ten Oscars in 1961 – the most ever for a musical.  The two leading roles in NLOC’s production are played by Hawken Paul as Tony and Gabriella Harding as Maria. They are modern-day Romeo and Juliet.  Paul is a senior at LaGuardia High School, where the 1980 movie “Fame” was set. He’s performed with NLOC for eight years, but this will be his first major role.  This show marks 14-year-old Harding’s first appearance on stage. She’s an eighth grader at Park Rapids Middle School.

 Lewis Johnson, a 2015 graduate of Park Rapids High School, portrays Bernardo.  Libby Sorenson of Bemidji is the high-spirited Anita. She’s Maria’s friend and Bernardo’s girlfriend.  Riff, leader of the Jets, is played by veteran dancer/actor Jake Jager.  Faith Kern is “Anybodys,” a tomboy outcast who wants to be a Jet, but is rejected by the gang. Kern recently won the Park Rapids Sings contest and Hubbard County Fair Talent Show.  “’West Side Story’ is different than anything NLOC has ever done,” said stage director Lisa Dove. “In our production, most actors are actually the same ages as their characters, so there’s a real youthful vitality they bring to the stage.”  Choreographer Karen Palmen makes the most of the cast’s exuberance and athleticism – they somersault, twirl, dance, scale fences, climb, jump, do pull ups on fire escapes and erupt into fights.  The set rises vertically, with chain-link fencing and faux high-rise apartment buildings.  “Karen Palmen has taken their enthusiasm and transformed it through her choreography into exciting dance sequences that literally fill up the stage, which Greg Paul and his tech crew are building right next to the audience,” said Lisa Dove.  

The musical score includes “America,” “Maria,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “A Boy Like That” and “I Feel Pretty.”  “The music is viscerally emotional and soaring, and the script offers rich characters to explore,” Lisa Dove said.   “Faith Kern spoke of how satisfying it was to be able to dig deeply into a character, and feel like she could keep digging. I’m proud of all the work everyone is putting into this production.”  Jets members are played by Brandon Haller, Maurice Fields, Kaeden Berg, Jaxon Anderson, Logan Taylor, Finn Paul, Sage Hovet, Kate Westphal, Katie Jager, Elizabeth Hallaway, Olivia Taylor, Meyah Taylor, Julia Pelzel and Caroline Koch.  The Sharks gang includes Chaz Morgan, Zach Johnston, Tom Ellingson, Charlie Edwins, Rich Wilmot, Krissy Borud, Abby Sellnow, Abigail Gilbert, Coral Johnson, Joscelin Eischens and Paige Leeseberg.  Haakon Vaadeland plays Lieutenant Schrank. Mike Carrol is Officer Krupke. Dick Longtine will be “Doc,” with Nancy Ganske as “Gladhands.”  Opening night is 7 p.m. Friday, July 31 at Armory Square, with additional evening performances Saturday, Aug. 1 and Aug. 6-7. Matinees are 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 2 and Saturday, Aug. 8.  The newly renovated, historic Armory is located at 203 Park Ave. S.  Tickets are available at Beagle and Wolf Books, www.northernlightopera.org, info@northernlightopera.org. or at the door.  NLOC is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.

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