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Posted June 18, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Musical based on Bard's tale of forbidden love

Actors rehearse a scene
Actors rehearse a scene from Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre's upcoming production of "West Side Story." Rich Cooley/Daily

James Rodriguez pins down Andy Crosten
James Rodriguez, on top, as Bernardo, pins down Andy Crosten, as A-Rab, in this scene from "West Side Story." Rich Cooley/Daily

Michael Ehlers, Crosten and Jordan Ellis rehearse a scene
Michael Ehlers, left, as Anxious, Crosten, center, and Jordan Ellis, as Toro, rehearse a scene from the musical. Rich Cooley/Daily

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By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- The second production of the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers, but don't expect your typical Shakespearean tragedy.

"It's not 'Romeo and Juliet,' but certain story lines are so similar," says Michael Amisko, who will play Tony in the upcoming production of "West Side Story."

Though based on William Shakespeare's famous play, "West Side Story" takes place in 1950s New York City and follows the forbidden love between a young American man and a Puerto Rican girl, who are swept up in the violence of rival gang warfare between the Jets and the Sharks. Despite their trials, the two are determined to be together.

"Well, it's a beautiful story to begin with, and the music is just wonderful, and it's really, truly just an emotional story," says producing artistic director Hal Herman.

The book was written by Arthur Laurents, the music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

"It's the most challenging musical book in music theater," says Trish Epperson, who plays Maria.

"I think it's a very special show," Herman says. The university chose to perform this show because of audience demand. Each season the audience votes for which shows they want the university to perform the following year.

"The four shows we picked were all top winners on the ballot," he says. Though the summer program led off with 'Hairspray," a musical that leaves viewers laughing, audiences can expect a different dynamic in "West Side Story," Amisko says.

Herman believes the show's popularity stems from its brilliant characters and melodies, with show-stopping tunes like "Maria," "Somewhere" and "Tonight."

Even a well-known show can offer a unique experience, though, depending on its cast and on the actors' interpretation of their roles.

"I would say that Tony, Tony's a bit of a dreamer," says Amisko, a 2008 Shenandoah graduate. Tony, a former member of the Jets, leaves the gang when he realizes it isn't the brotherhood he had imagined it would be.

"What brings him back is his love for [Jets leader] Riff," Amisko says. "I think he's saving up money to support his mother and go to college," Amisko says. Then he meets Maria, and his ideas for the future change completely.

"Maria is viewed as a virginal, innocent character, but I view her as a rebel," says Epperson, a Shenandoah student. When Maria meets Tony, she defies the wishes of her brother, Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, and continues to see Tony.

"I think they're both open to whatever's to come," Epperson says. Though the main characters' plans are thwarted, it's their personalities and their ethics that really infuse the story with life.

"It's very, very sad. The sadness is there, but it gets the point across," Epperson says. "A common circumstance, no matter who you are or what you do, can still bring you together."

The play ends much like Shakespeare's tragedy does, but Epperson and Amisko agree the audience will notice the variations and will come away from "West Side Story" feeling differently than they would from "Romeo and Juliet."

"The music does it for you this time, instead of words," Epperson says, explaining how the orchestral score offers a meaning behind the final few chords, a feeling that the two gangs might just finally end their war after all.

"It gives a sense of hope in people and hope in true love," she says.

"Be prepared for an outstanding score, a heart-wrenching story and a very emotional experience," Herman says.

"West Side Story" is the second of four musicals in the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre held at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre at Shenandoah University in Winchester. It begins June 24 and runs through July 5. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, and Sundays at 7 p.m. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. every Saturday and on July 1, at 2:30. There will be no evening performance on July 4. For tickets or more information call the box office at 665-4569 or visit the Web at www.su.edu.

The next two shows are "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Disney's Beauty and the Beast."

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