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The message is the thing for cast of ‘West Side Story’

Gershon Escobar as Bernando and Tanner Purkey as Riff set up a rumble between the Jets and Sharks during rehearsals last week. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

The cast of McNary High School’s production of West Side Story is well aware of the bigger issues at work in the play, but even that didn’t prepare them for acting out some scenes.

Their roles in the play set Alea Bellish and her boyfriend, Rudy Trevino, on opposite sides of warring gangs that threaten to tear apart two star-crossed lovers in the retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.  Bellish plays Jet girl Clarice and Trevino is Indio, a Shark.

“At first it was kind of hard giving him the dirty looks when we’re walking around in a promenade at the big dance. It was a little like, ‘What am I doing?’” Bellish said. “But everyone is being great about it because we’ve realized that we’re acting and, once it’s over, we can go back to being cool with each other again.”

“If you just take a snapshot of the stage with the Jets on one side and the Sharks on the other, you can sort of hold that over McNary and see the same things happening here,” Trevino added. “This is kind of my school on the stage. There’s a lot of realism and it’s sending a message that this needs to change.”

The play opens Thursday, Jan. 19. Curtain time is 7 p.m. Additional shows are slated Jan. 20-21 and 26-28. Matinees are scheduled at 1 p.m. Jan. 21 and 28. Tickets are $8 and available only at the McNary main office. Tickets will not be sold over the phone.

While musicals typically involve a lot of dancing, West Side Story adds another layer – combat – to the stage experience.

“I’ve never gotten to do as much stage combat. You have to rehearse that a lot more you have to go a lot slower and work up to full speed,” said Camden Davis, who plays Action, one of the Jets. “It’s a little like dance choreography in that way.”

Davis was most excited about leading the Jets in Gee, Officer Krupke.

Freshman Julia Fegles is relishing the opportunity to play one of the guys as the Jets’ Anybodys, the female member of the otherwise all-boy gang.

“It’s crazy, the things that guys talk about when they don’t remember that there’s a girl on stage, but the guy dancing is also really fun and it’s so cool. The dance moves are totally different style from girls, there’s a lot of jumping,” she said.

While it wouldn’t be a musical without a healthy dose of fun, the core themes of the play have started to take root for members of the cast, said Amy Gomez.

“We’re all bonding and, now, we see each other in the hallways and talk with people we didn’t even notice before. It’s totally bringing us together,” she said.

Conversations about the bigger issues the play tackles have been the highlight for Tanner Purkey, who plays Jet leader Riff. Purkey describes Riff as a dream role. He first became attached to the character after reading over the play when he was younger, but watching Russ Tamblyn portray the character on the silver screen cinched his desire to play it.

He’s hoping the play has a lasting effect on all who come for a show.

“I hope it’s kind of a shock. The characters themselves are teens and the same stuff is happening here. I also want them to see the regret at the end of the play – the fact that it takes three deaths for the gangs to realize that what they’ve done to each other –  and for the audience to have that realization for themselves before any more deaths have to occur in real life.”

Check out this video teaser for McNary’s pro­duc­tion of West Side Story.