"It's Romeo and Juliet. What's better than that?" responds Charles Harris, drama teacher at Port Coquitlam's Archbishop Carney regional high school, when asked why he picked West Side Story for this year's musical that starts Wednesday.
"I did it when I was younger. My wife was in it in high school. I just think it's this wonderful show that brings in so many elements: love, anger, loyalties - you name it."
Harris and the cast of 45 Grade 8 to 12 students started rehearsals last December on the production, an extracurricular that involved practices three times a week after school.
Harris said he was lucky to have a number of triple threats to chose from for his leads, many of them students of Coquitlam's Lindbjerg Academy of Performing Arts.
Jenna Testani, 16, Grade 11, was selected as Maria - the role portrayed by Natalie Wood in the 1961 Oscar-winning movie - for her voice, Harris said, while Justin Theiss, 18, Grade 12, auditioned for and won the part of Tony, a former member of the Jets gang who falls in love with Maria, the sister of Shark leader Bernardo.
Theiss, who has been with the Coastal Sound Youth Choir for three years, said he looks forward to his first lead role though juggling his school/social life schedule in his final year has been a challenge.
"It's been hard to balance," he admitted, "but you have to know that it doesn't last. It's a lot of work for a short time."
The same crunch applied to Lorenzo Bisceglia, 17, Grade 12, who plans to pursue a science degree after graduation. Still, despite the extra pressures, he has managed to maintain an honour roll status and be the student council's deputy prime minister; for the past five years at Archbishop, he has been in every major theatrical production including in last year's Rumors, portraying Lenny Ganz.
"I just don't plan a couple of days in advance - it's weeks," he said.
Playing Bernardo "I guess is relatively easy for me. He wears his emotions on his sleeve a lot and I do that, too. I've been watching the movie and trying to get in Bernardo's mind to prepare the character."
Set in New York City in the mid-1950s, West Side Story is a popular American musical inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that looks at the teenage gang rivalry of the Jets and the Sharks. The white blue-collar Jets - led by the quick-tempered leader Riff - taunt the Puerto Rican Sharks.
Leonard Bernstein's score for the musical include such famous songs as Maria, America and Somewhere. And for the Archbishop show, Harris recruited the 25-piece Maple Ridge Community Band and freelance choreographers Maureen Boudier and Alana Johnstone to help out.
Harris said he likes the idea of students working alongside professionals.
"They're with very talented adults and it gives them something to aspire to," Harris said of his students, adding, "I think we have a reputation for excellence and this production will take it another level.
"I believe this is our best one yet," Harris said.
Parents, teachers and school staff also are involved in making the show a success, organizing advertising, props, front of house, ushering, makeup and hair, among other things.
Tickets at $15 for Archbishop Carney regional high school's West Side Story, which runs May 23 to 26, are available by calling 604-942-7465 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The show starts at 7 p.m. at Terry Fox secondary (1260 Riverwood Gate, Port Coquitlam).