West Side Story is going to rock it tonight (Saturday and Sunday, too) at the Largo Cultural Center.
Set in a 1950s New York City tenement district, the updated retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a theater-patron's dream: Showstopping songs like Tonight, I Feel Pretty, America and Somewhere. Dance numbers that soar, tell stories, and develop characters. An emotional roller coaster of a plot.
But it's also a director's nightmare. The largely male cast requires triple threats who can sing, dance and perform jazz ballet. Half have to look Puerto Rican. And the leads in the show must have voices like opera stars.
"There's a lot of apprehension about doing West Side Story because you don't know if you are going to get the cast you need until you hold auditions," said James Grenelle, who directs Eight O'Clock Theatre's production of the iconic musical.
So Grenelle, choreographer Amy Phillips and musical director Jeremy Silverman mined the bay area for talent.
"There are so many requirements to make the show succeed and we are blessed we found them," Phillips said.
Melissa Labiak, who watched a recent dress rehearsal, said the cast brought an A-plus performance to the stage. She had special praise for Anissa Perona, the 17-year-old Dunedin High School senior who plays Maria.
"This was Anissa's blooming role," she said. "She killed it."
The actress, who is able to access powerful emotions quickly and honestly, brings a classically trained soprano voice to the role of the innocent Puerto Rican immigrant who falls in love with Tony.
The plot revolves around their struggle to be together and find happiness amid the crossfire of gang warfare.
The role of Tony is played by Austin Gresham, 19. Theater fans may recognize him from this summer's Pirates of Penzance produced by Francis Wilson Playhouse, where he played the lead role of Frederic.
His voice is especially commanding in the Tonight Quintet sung by him, the Jets, the Sharks, Maria and Anita. It's a magical moment when the all voices on stage come together to reach a mighty crescendo.
Actress Rachel Crissman (Fiona in last year's Shrek the Musical) is still playing it feisty, but sexier this time, as Anita, Maria's older confidante.
West Side Story won three Tony Awards and a Grammy Award (the 1961 film won 10 Academy Awards).
Even though the musical made its Broadway premier in 1957, its powerful, poignant themes of hatred and prejudice are still timely today, Grenelle said.
"West Side Story was a real ground-breaker,'' she said. "Back then, no one talked about these things."