Last June, Dave Secunda's musical theatre class at Riverside secondary shortlisted four works for the next school semester.
The Port Coquitlam students were tired, having just wrapped up Fiddler on the Roof, a weighty production set in Tsarist Russia in 1905, and wanted to try something lighter, with dancing and singing.
Their choice? Barry Manilow's Copacabana, a TV and stage musical that most students had never heard of.
Secunda was happy to oblige and, over the summer, acquired the soundtrack and the rights to perform the play, which runs at the school from Feb. 24 to 26 and from March 3 to 5, at 7 p.m.
For the past five months and nearly every weekday, the Grade 11/12 class studied the script: workshopping the plot, learning the characters' lines, designing the sets and figuring out the lighting. They studied YouTube videos on Copacabana, researched post-WW2 musical history and some, like Nick Jennings, a 17-year-old Grade 12 student, watched Hollywood films such as Good Fellas and The Godfather to get a feel for the characters.
Jennings portrays Rico Castelli, a suave Italian gangster who manages The Tropicana in Havana, Cuba, and steals Copa starlet Lola la Mar, who is played by Secunda's 17-year-old daughter, Joylyn.
"She's from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and she's trying to make it big," the Grade 11 student said of her character. "She's trying to gain more confidence but she ends up being kidnapped."
For her pivotal role, Secunda said she's delving into the subtext of Lola - a counterpoint to Castelli's long-suffering and obnoxious girlfriend, Conchita Alvarez, played by the towering Cydney Paddon.
Paddon, also 17, said she'll be putting everything into her performance as it will be her last at Riverside. Since transferring from Dr. Charles Best secondary in Coquitlam last year, the Grade 12 student has been in five Riverside plays: The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Fiddler and The Love Talker. Still, after Copa, she'll keeping her creative juices flowing with her work at The Cultch, an East Vancouver theatre company, and Leaky Heaven Circus of Vancouver.
Dylan Matthews, who last year took on the role of Perchik, a Bolshevik revolutionary, in Fiddler, said he plans to ham up his Copa chorus part, confiding he's named his minor character Fernando, who is love-struck.
"I think it's fun to be in the background and make stuff up," he said. "There's less pressure on you and so you focus on the small things."
But, in June, he and Jennings will be in the spotlight when they present a play they co-wrote.
As for the Latin high-energy songs that Copacabana is famous for, the musical theatre class has been under the direction of Catalin Ursu while Secunda's wife,Linda Arkelian, has provided the dance steps.
And those frilly satin costumes? They're from past Riverside shows and from creations pulled together by Sheila Polard, an alumnus parent.
"We wanted a lot of colour, a lot of frill," Arkelian said, "and that's what we got."
Tickets for Copacabana are $12 at the door or in advance by calling Riverside secondary school (2215 Reeve St., Port Coquitlam) at604-941-6053.