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MTSU brings ‘West Side Story’ to life in Tucker Theatre

Shakespeare first cut them out in little stars, and a quartet of American theater geniuses modernized the young lovers’ story into a musical that lit up Broadway nearly four centuries later.

Click on the poster for ticket information.

Click on the poster for ticket information.

Now MTSU Theatre students want audiences to feel the hope and heartache of Maria, Tony and their friends in a full-scale MTSU Arts production of the Broadway classic “West Side Story” that runs through Sunday, April 24, in Tucker Theatre.

“This show is special for us because of where America is right now,” says senior Sadie Katie Hampton, a Knoxville, Tennessee, resident and stage manager for the musical. “We’re doing our best, with all of the craziness going on in the world today, to show a story.

MTSU Arts logo“We’ve done big shows here, but this is grand and it’s very serious and real and relevant. Every rehearsal I walk into, I’m immersed in this new world.”

Tickets for Wednesday night sold out, but seats remain for Thursday-Saturday, April 21-23, nights at 7:30 and for the 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, April 24.

Tickets are available here. General admission tickets are $15 each and $10 for K-12 students; MTSU students, faculty and staff with valid IDs will be admitted free.

The 1957 musical updated “Romeo and Juliet,” won two Tony Awards and a Grammy and is regularly revived on Broadway. The 1961 film version of “West Side Story” won 10 Academy Awards. Its songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim — “Somewhere,” “America,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty” — are classics, as is its iconic Jerome Robbins choreography of the battling, finger-snapping Jets and Sharks.

But with film-version lyrics like “Life is all right in America/If you’re all white in America” and blunt depictions of racism, immigration, gang violence, futile deaths and authority figures passing the buck in both the stage and film musicals, the MTSU cast agrees that “West Side Story” is, unfortunately, just as timely almost 60 years later.

“While this show has a lot of spectacle to it, a lot of fun numbers, a lot of interesting and amazing things to see, I hope people will walk away from it and realize that there is a lot of hurt and pain in this world,” explains Knoxville freshman theatre major Brianna Smart, the show’s bright-eyed female lead, Maria. “We as human beings cause it to each other for the most ridiculous reasons.

Knoxville freshman Brianna Smart, left, and Murfreesboro junior Collin Peterson rehearse a scene from “West Side Story” outside MTSU’s Tucker Theatre. The pair portray Maria and Tony, respectively, in the MTSU Theatre production, which runs April 20-24. Tickets are available at http://www.mtsuarts.com. (MTSU photo by J. Intintoli)

Knoxville freshman Brianna Smart, left, and Murfreesboro junior Collin Peterson rehearse a scene from “West Side Story” outside MTSU’s Tucker Theatre. The pair portray Maria and Tony, respectively, in the MTSU Theatre production, which runs April 20-24. (MTSU photo by J. Intintoli)

“If we can have 10 people walk away each night thinking, ‘Hey, this story had a message,’ then I think we’ve done a good job. … We as a cast are particularly focusing on the story and the importance of understanding where everyone has come from, and the battles they’ve faced, and not facing one another with prejudice but with love and respect.”

The MTSU production features a full orchestra and 38-member cast plus a crew that brings the total involved to nearly 80 people.

It’s the Department of Theatre and Dance’s largest musical production since the record-setting four-night run of “Les Misérables” in fall 2013 and is being led by the same pair: director Kristi Shamburger, a theatre professor, and musical director Raphael Bundage, a professor of vocal performance in MTSU’s School of Music.

Professor Kristi Shamburger

Professor Kristi Shamburger

The department’s dance program is playing a role in “West Side Story,” too, with choreography help from assistant professor Marsha Barsky. A complete cast list is available here.

“We’ve not really run into any unexpected challenges as there are always elements to overcome in every production,” Shamburger said, “but we are learning to navigate our set; the show is quite physical with a considerable amount of stage combat, dance and climbing!

“We have a fantastic cast that has been such a joy to work with too. They are always ready to ‘rev us off,’ as the script says. I hope audiences will join us on this worthwhile journey, because it’s full of excitement, fun and emotion.”

Murfreesboro junior Collin Peterson, a vocal performance and music education major who’s already sung and acted on local stages as well as at Hinton Hall and Tucker Theatre, says he soon realized, in rehearsing as Tony, something key about the show.

“There’s a big message toward the end [where] I’m speaking to ‘Doc,’ and I say, ‘Even if it only lasts from one night to the next, it’s worth the world.’

“That’s the love that Tony and Maria get to share for that small amount of time,” he explains, “and I think that’s important to remember, for all of us.”

For more information about the show, visit www.mtsuarts.com or call 615-494-8810.

— Gina E. Fann (gina.fann@mtsu.edu)