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'West Side Story' Opens Tonight at MJCCA

Young thespians in community center's summer stock program handle all aspects of the show.

Soaring music. Snappy lyrics and melodies. Star-crossed lovers. Searing tragedy.

Who doesn’t love “West Side Story,” or need a dose of it now and again?

About 50 young people, mostly ages 15 to 21, have spent the summer in Dunwoody preparing a full-scale production of the beloved 1957 Broadway musical. These high school and college students from throughout the metro area are enrolled in a “summer stock” program offered by the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. Through this program,  young people interested in theater are mentored in and then handle all aspects of a production, from the acting-singing-dancing to the lights, costumes, set design/construction and stage managing.

This “West Side Story” opens at 8 p.m. tonight, for the first of six performances that conclude on Aug. 7. (Shows are on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays only).

Longtime actor and director Brian Kimmel of Roswell directs the program as well as the show itself, which he calls the “greatest love story of all time.” In saying that, he is referring equally to the show’s original source: Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Kimmel is especially excited to be helming the show with Eileen Edwards, his longtime friend and theater associate, who is choreographer for “West Side Story.” Last summer, Kimmel and Edwards were director and choregrapher for “Rent,” also staged by MJCCA’s summer stock program.

“Eileen and I both love ‘West Side Story’ and we’ve had a dream for about 15 years to do it together,” Kimmel said. “This was finally the perfect opportunity.”

Last summer’s “Rent” was hardly the dance extravaganza that is “West Side Story.”

“The directing is one thing, but the choreography is over half of this show,” Kimmel said. “So we have to be on the same page in terms of leading these kids. Every entrance is choreographed, every beat. It’s really about getting the movement and the dance as tight as a whip.”

While Edwards is being faithful to Jerome Robbins’ famous original choreography whenever possible, she has also been inspired by the specific strengths of some of the 31 cast members. For example, a couple of the performers have strong acrobatic skills, “so Eileen has used that to enhance the jazz and ballet,” Kimmel said. Watch for some “Spiderman”-like acrobatics at times.

The show, widely regarded as among Leonard Bernstein’s best work, has a top-drawer score.  It’s filled with gorgeous love songs (such as “Maria,” “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart”) as well as more rousing numbers (“Jet Song,” “America,” “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “I Feel Pretty”). An ensemble of six musicians will provide the live accompaniment.

As for the acting and the drama itself, Kimmel said his aim is to emphasize the tragic Shakespearean elements.

“I’m going to hit that part of the show heavy,” he said. “The tension and conflict have got to be there, because that conflict is toxic between those two gangs (the Jets, who represent the New Yorker-Americans, and the Sharks, who have Puerto Rican heritage). “Those groups are out for blood,” the director added.

When we spoke to Kimmel, he was off to rehearse the romantic and electrically charged “balcony scene” with his leads. Jo-Jo Steine, a student at Pope High School, is Maria, and Will Stanley, who will study theater at Valdosta State University, plays Tony.

While Kimmel is going for blood, he said he is equally concerned with creating the right energy and mood in the show’s more quiet, tender moments — moments which largely involve the young lovers.

“It’s a delicate balance, this show,” he said, “but it’s one of the reasons this show is one of the great ones, because it just has everything.”

Kimmel’s ultimate goal: “To tell the story plainly and simply. I want to be sure the story comes across as crystal clear. That’s what’s so important — because it’s a very powerful story.”

 

If you go: “West Side Story,” at MJCCA Center Theatre, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody. Performances: 8 p.m. on July 27, July 28, Aug. 3, Aug. 4; 2 p.m. on July 31 and Aug. 7. Tickets (reserved seats) cost $12-$20, with discounts for MJCCA members, students and senior citizens. Tickets will be sold at the door if available, but advanced purchases are advised: (678) 812-4002, or visit www.atlantajcc.org

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