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Shady Side Academy's Hillman Center hosting 'West Side Story' this weekend

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 9:47 p.m.
The Herald
On the balcony after the dance is Tony (Noah Sprock) and Maria (Carianne Lee) as they begin to fall in love from a scene in the Shady Side Academy musical, 'West Side Story.' Jan Pakler | for The Herald
The Herald
Shady Side Academy rehearses for the musical West Side Story. In this scene the street gangs the Sharks and the Jets fight for their New York City neighborhoods. Jan Pakler | for The Herald
The Herald
During this scene from the Shady Side Academy musical, 'West Side Story' the Jets gather at their favorite hangout at the local drug store making plans to keep the power over the Sharks. Jan Pakler | for The Herald
The Herald
Dancing the Mambo from a scene in the Shady Side Academy musical is Bernardo (Justin Barnes) and partner Anita (Abigail Spear). Jan Pakler | for The Herald

Acting takes on new meaning in this year's Shady Side Academy winter production, “West Side Story.”

An anger-fueled story set in the 1950s pits two rival gangs against each other in heavily choreographed dance scenes in which teens fight to earn street cred.

“The violence and the racial divide is very hard for these kids, even though they're playing a role,” said theater director Dana Hardy-Bingham. “These kids are raised with tolerance, and it's tough for them to hate someone because of the color of their skin, which is a nice thing.

“They're working hard, but it does not come naturally.”

The show, with its legendary musical score and technical dance numbers, will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 8 and 9, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10, in the Hillman Center for Performing Arts on the school campus, along Fox Chapel Road.

Tickets cost $10 and can be purchased online at www.showclix.com/events/15655, by phone at 412-968-3040 or at the door.

Inspired by Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet,” the show was written by Arthur Larents with music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

Its awe-inspiring dance numbers earned a Tony Award; the film version in 1961 was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won Best Picture.

Set in New York's Upper West Side, the show plays up the ethnic rivalry between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Polish-American Jets. There is fighting, fiery dialogue and unfair play.

When Tony — a Jet — falls in love with Sharks-based Maria, the social problems are highlighted and marked a turning point in American musical theater, Hardy-Bingham said.

The musical remains relevant, she said.

“Thankfully, 2013 is so politically correct, but it reminds them of the sense of the period,” said Hardy-Bingham, who came to SSA after a 20-year professional acting career.

Other staff members leading the production include music director Dan Brill and technical director Austin Davidheiser.

Hardy-Bingham said the show was a natural choice for this year, largely because it accommodates the number of senior boys set to graduate.

“We have a good number of seniors, and the gangs require those kind of numbers,” she said.

That was the practical reason. But Hardy-Bingham said she also knew this group of students could tackle the technically demanding choreography.

“The most astonishing thing is the way they've stepped up,” she said. “The dances are really hard. They are on the level of a school with a dance program.”

Of the 18 musical numbers, 14 of them are “ridiculously hard,” Hardy-Bingham said, citing that students typically are challenged by two or three numbers in a standard musical, while the rest are easier.

“The athleticism, poise and effort these require is amazing,” she said. “I'm very proud of how hard they're working.”

Choreography for the show is by Jeremy Czarniak.

More than 90 students are participating in the show, including those in the cast, crew and orchestra pit.

Starring roles went to seniors Noah Sprock as Tony and Carianne Lee as Maria.

Junior Abigail Spear landed the role of Anita, snappy girlfriend of the main Shark character.

It is her third show in as many years at the school.

“I love being in the show,” said Spear, who is gearing up to belt out several pivotal numbers including “A Boy Like That.”

Neither the challenges of the social mind-set nor the nightmare footwork has squashed her enthusiasm.

“This is different for us, there's so much dancing,” she said. “But we came together and realized we have to work really hard to make this show amazing.

“Hopefully it will all be great.”

Spear said the theater program feels like family.

“There's such a great sense of community here, and a lot of us don't always get to see each other during the day,” she said. “It's nice to be together.”

Tawnya Panizzi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-782-2121, ext. 2 or tpanizzi@tribweb.com.

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