Musical takes stage

"West Side Story" may be nearly 50 years old, but the cast and crew behind the La Cañada High School production, which debuts on Wednesday night, hope audiences will still be able to relate to the story's themes of young love and tragedy.

The musical about two young lovers from rival gangs on the streets of New York is as relevant today as it was years ago, said choreographer Kerry Rupe.

The struggle of the "Sharks" ? made up of Puerto Rican immigrants ? is particularly poignant, she said.

"Both gangs are made up of immigrants and they come here and don't feel accepted," Rupe said. "It's an issue that is straight out of the headlines in the papers right now.

"But it's also about young love, and teens thinking that nobody understands them, and making the wrong decisions. They try to do the right thing but sometimes they fail," Rupe added.

Keeping tabs on 55 cast members and training them in the production's complex dance routines was challenging, Rupe said, but she wanted to make sure that the choreography matched the intensity of the plot, which is not always campy and fun, she added.

Jay Bicknell, 17, plays Riff, the leader of the Jets, and although he admits he has not experienced much gang culture in La Cañada Flintridge, he believes everyone can relate to the story line.

"I think everyone can understand the tragedy of it all," Bicknell said. "The music is also very interesting and so is the correlation between the play and 'Romeo & Juliet.'"

As a singer, Bicknell said he found it challenging to play the role of Riff and so did Preston Walker, who plays his arch rival, Bernardo, the gang leader of the Sharks.

"Bernardo is an angry guy ? he's angry 24/7," said Walker. "It was hard for me because I'm not an angry person, I'm pretty happy and this is my first major acting role."

Walker said he can relate to some aspects of the Puerto Rican culture because he is half-Cuban and he is hoping he will be able to impress his family on opening night.

Alexis Schaetzle, 18, who plays Bernardo's girlfriend Anita, said she enjoyed delving into the Puerto Rican culture and relished the opportunity to take on a unique role.

"It's been really challenging playing this sassy Puerto Rican girl," Schaetzle said. "I've enjoyed playing a cross-cultural role, mastering the accent and the dancing."

FYI

WHAT: "West Side Story"

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday

WHERE: La Cañada High School, 4463 Oak Grove Drive, La Cañada Flintridge

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