When Gleneagle secondary’s new drama teacher auditioned his musical theatre class last October for a possible jukebox production, he knew it wasn’t a good fit.
The 40 or so grade 9 to 12 students needed to create a more substantial work for their spring show, Justin Maller said, “because the talent pool was that impressive.”
He settled on West Side Story, a 1957 Broadway musical made famous in a film version four years later by Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony.
It had the depth Maller was looking for to challenge the students’ triple threat abilities and it raised social topics still hot in the U.S. and around the world today.
For his Maria, Maller recruited Grade 12 student Hira Lalani for “her very unique singing style,” he said, noting in February, Lalani sang at Carnegie Hall in New York City as part of the Honors Women’s Choir in the 2019 High School Performance Honors Program.
And for Maria’s beau, Tony, the Jets founder, Maller picked Grade 11 student Christian Ramirez, a 16-year-old teen who was in last year’s Sister Act directed by Zelda Coertze.
Maller also took on Gleneagle graduate Lyndsey Britten to handle the choreography (currently, the veteran stage actor and dancer is cast in the ensemble for the Royal City Musical Theatre production of Singin’ in the Rain at the Massey Theatre in New Westminster).
The school musical, which comes four years after Gleneagle grad Jennifer Gillis portrayed Maria at Theatre Under the Stars, is a modern day take on Romeo and Juliet.
Set in the Upper West Side of New York City in the mid-1950s, it follows the rivalry between two street gangs: the Sharks, whose members are Puerto Rican immigrants, and the Jets, a white gang.
Tensions boil over when Tony falls in love with Maria, the sister of the Sharks’ leader.
Ramirez said he was excited to learn Gleneagle would be tackling a serious show but he’s confident his peers are up to the task.
“We had a lot of Grade 12 students in musical theatre who left last year so now the lead roles are filled with people who were in the ensembles in the past,” he told The Tri-City News at the Coquitlam school on Monday.
Tori Kazemir, a Grade 11 student who plays the Sharks girl Consuelo and is the Maria understudy, said while the narrative is sobering, the songs are remarkable.
Among the pieces in Leonard Berstein and Stephen Sondheim’s score are: Jet Song, Something’s Coming, Maria, Tonight, America, I Feel Pretty and Somewhere.
Meanwhile, Maller is no stranger to directing high school musicals. While in the Delta School District for 22 years, the Port Moody resident oversaw Grease, Footloose, Rent and Into the Woods while teaching at his most recent school, Sands secondary.
A graduate of the UBC music program, Maller is also active in the Tri-City music community: He is the artistic director of the Coquitlam Chorale, which this weekend has two spring showcases, And the Winner Is…, at the Eagle Ridge Bible Fellowship.
For tickets at $15/$8 to West Side Story at Gleneagle secondary (1195 Lansdowne Dr., Coquitlam) on April 30, May 1 and 2, and May 8 to 10, visit the school or brownpapertickets.com. The curtain rises at 7 p.m. Call 604-464-5793.