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All-Teen 'West Side Story' Delivers Message with Music

Boston Children's Theatre (BCT) - the only performing arts organization in Boston whose sole mission is to provide live theatre opportunities for and by children - combined its recent 50th anniversary presentation of the classic musical West Side Story with a potent message: gang violence has tragic consequences. Because of the age appropriateness of the all-teen cast, the turf wars depicted between the Sharks and Jets came alive with new meaning as multi-racial and multi-ethnic kids from Boston's inner city and its more affluent suburbs shared the stage - and drove their points home in dramatic fashion.

Presented in dinner-theater format with the audience seated at round tables, each performance of West Side Story included an open discussion of teen violence prevention. Prior to the opening curtain, guests were invited to consider how violence, bigotry, racism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination have affected their lives. They were also challenged to define a gang and offer ways in which they could help diffuse violence in their own communities. Following the performance, discussions resumed, this time facilitated by leaders specializing in teen violence prevention.

This is the first time in its 57-year history that Boston Children's Theatre has chosen a production performed by an all-teen cast specifically for a teen audience. Patricia M. Gleeson, executive Director of Boston Children's Theatre and director of West Side Story, says, "Every day in Boston, just as in New York City 50 years ago, young people find themselves in a world filled with violence - on the news, on the street, in school, and even at home. Boston Children's Theatre chose to produce West Side Story as a way for young people not only to take part in a wonderful musical theatre experience, but also to learn about themselves and their peers, and to participate in discussions about possible roots and remedies to the violence of today. This is what great theatre does best - present ideas."

BCT brings together students from all walks of life. Some of the cast members of West Side Story have been performing on stage since elementary school. Others were making their theatrical debuts. While some of the talent may still be rough around the edges, it was clear that each of these young actors had been schooled well and understood the complexities that drove their characters to make ill-fated choices.

Much of the credit for the sincerity of the performances in West Side Story goes to Gleeson, as well as musical director Markus Hauck and choreographer Khary Green, a BCT alum. They each have an apparent gift for working with their individual cast members' unique strengths, making shrewd casting choices and helping their young artists focus on the honest emotion within a song or scene.

Memorable production numbers included very well choreographed fights between the Sharks and Jets that were more realistically brawling than traditionally balletic; excellent dancing at the gym led by Riff (Kevin Mahoney) and his girl, Graziella (Carrie Widmer); an appropriately sarcastic and rousing "America" featuring Anita (Liana Gineitis) and the girls (Jessica Nahigian, Amelia Stone, Rosey Allen, and Thuy-Van Tran); and a very masculine and funny "Officer Krupke" featuring A-Rab (Dan Reardon) and the Jets (Kevin Paquette, Jack Walsh, Daniel Chase, MiLes Thomas-Moore and Kevin Chase). More intimate but equally potent scenes were a warmly romantic, tender, and optimistic wedding fantasy between Tony (Alex Starr) and Maria (Sarah Jade Kwolek); a heartfelt "A Boy Like That/I Had a Love" by Gineitis and Kwolek; and Kwolek's gripping final speech in which Maria, too, has now learned what it means to hate.

Boston Children's Theatre is a non-profit arts and education organization that has provided year-round opportunities for "live theatre for children by children" that are accessible, available, and affordable for all youth and families since 1951. Each year, BCT works with nearly 500 young artists and presents more than 100 performances that entertain an annual audience of 15,000.

For more information about other Boston Children's Theatre programs, please phone BCT at (617) 424-6634, visit the web site at www.bostonchildrenstheatre.org, or email info@bostonchildrenstheatre.org.

PHOTOS: Alex Starr and Sarah Jade Kwolek as Tony and Maria; Brion Rock (center) as Bernardo, with Minh Nguyen, Albert Wong, Patrick Abberton and Hector Medina as the Sharks; Liana Gineitis (center) as Anita with Jessica Nahigian, Amelia Stone, Thuy-Van Tran and Rosey Allen as the girls


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