This November Lincoln Academy and Heartwood Theater will stage West Side Story, one of the most beloved musicals of all time, on the intimate Poe Theater stage. Playing the iconic roles of star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony are Lincoln Academy juniors Kayleigh Tolley and Ethan Jones.
The two students, both of whom are members of the Lincoln Academy Lincolnaires as well as All-State vocalists, were cast to play Maria and Tony in June. They spent the summer learning Leonard Bernstein’s challenging score under the instruction of LA choir director Beth Preston, who also teaches private voice lessons in her studio.
“We worked with Ms. Preston weekly all summer,” said Tolley, who as a two-time winner of the Maine NATS (the National Competition of Teachers of Singing) Competition is no stranger to challenging vocal parts. “I have never sung any Bernstein before, and it is a lot more challenging than music I have learned in the past. It is in a higher range, and the music is really led by the lyrics.”
Jones agrees. “This music is really hard, but we are getting there!”
In addition to working on their West Side Story music, both performers spent much of their summer on stage in other productions. Tolley played Little Red in Heartwood Theater’s production of Into the Woods, which was staged at the Poe Theater, and Jones appeared in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland.
“Both parts are challenging vocally and physically, and both take a lot of time,” said Jones, comparing his two performance experiences, “But the stakes were a little lower in La Traviata, because I was in the ensemble, and there were so many other amazing singers around me. With this part [Tony], the pressure is on. I really love both casts, but in La Traviata there were a lot of adults who helped me learn the part, and now that is sort of flipped.”
Jones was quick to make sure this did not sound like he thinks of himself as an expert. “I have so much to learn! I am still learning things from the West Side Story cast.” He also credits the intense summer of vocal training with improving his skills as a singer. “Both parts were initially out of my range, but I have grown so much as a singer studying with Ms. Preston, and now I can sing the higher notes.”
As for Tolly’s summer experience, she said, “Into the Woods was more about telling a story through the songs. Playing Maria is all about emotion; finding a way to show emotion through singing. That is my hardest challenge. There is more emotion in this part than I am used to.” The best part? “I have had more time to really enjoy the music in West Side Story. Into the Woods came together so fast, and I have all summer and fall to work with the Maria part.”
The West Side Story cast involves more than 40 students including performers, tech workers, and musicians who will play in the pit orchestra with music director Sean Fleming. West Side Story, of course, is replete with famous dance numbers, including “Jet Song,” “Dance in the Gym,” and “America.” The cast has the benefit of an experienced professional to guide them through the dancing in New-York-based choreographer Michelle Bruckner, who is traveling to Newcastle each week to train them. Actors will also be honing their chops with stage combat taught by Mark Bedell. But always front and center is the beloved–and difficult–Bernstein score, full of unusual harmonies and rhythms.
“The musical score for West Side Story is challenging,” agrees Preston, “but we have a group of kids who are up to that challenge. Not only do we expect them to learn the music, we work hard on fully characterizing the text, treating the music as sung monologues and dialogues.”
West Side Story opens November 3 and runs for two weekends. Tickets are available through Heartwood Theater company at 563-1373 or firstname.lastname@example.org. “We expect this show to be very popular, like Fiddler on the Roof was five years ago,” said Griff Braley, the theater and media teacher at Lincoln Academy, who is directing West Side Story. “We started getting calls about tickets before we even started rehearsing. If people want to see this show, they will definitely need to plan ahead.”