The fifth annual ACT UP! summer production will be "West Side Story" at 7:30 p.m. July 27 and 28 and 2 p.m. July 29 at the Community Arts Center, 220 W. Fourth St.
Students in grades eight through 12 from Lycoming County school districts, as well as students from Milton, Sunbury and other surrounding areas, make up the cast of more than 50 student performers in this year's production.
ACT UP! performances are a collaboration between the Community Theatre League and the Community Arts Center. The CTL traditionally provides the artistic staff and the CAC gives oversight and technical staff, according to Jacquie Engel, youth programs coordinator and graphic designer for the CTL.
"The summer musical requires an 'all hands on deck' call to both organizations," said Rob Steele, executive director of the CAC. "Production team members are drawn from both organizations, from the community at large and we have support from professionals from New York City and other areas as well."
"West Side Story," a Shakespearean tale inspired by "Romeo and Juliet," is based in New York City in the 1950s. Two rival gangs, the Jets (American) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican), fight for control of their neighborhood. As the Sharks are faced with difficulties of fitting in with American society, the Jets are not welcoming of newcomers into their territory. Meanwhile, forbidden love blooms between a member of the Jets and the sister of the leader of the Sharks.
Love, tragedy, tolerance and acceptance are hard lessons learned throughout the power struggle between the two feuding gangs and those around them.
Engel said they like to mix things up when choosing the summer production for the students, trying to make the talents involved in the production different from year to year.
Past performances include "High School Musical," "Footloose," "Les Miserables" and "Hairspray." Some being more dance, acting or vocally heavy than others.
Steele said choosing the production is often made over a four or five month time period following the previous summer's show. He said they also like to balance the male versus female roles, as well as give the students the opportunity to challenge themselves in all aspects of musical theatre and in a variety of formats.
" 'West Side Story' is a trifecta," Engel said. "The show requires strong dancing, singing and acting. With one of the most challenging scores in musical history, using the original Jerome Robbins choreography, and with a heart-wrenching story, the kids are able to really show off what they can do."
Steele said he is amazed at the talent and musical skills that the area students have brought to auditions and rehearsals.
"The depth and breadth of the talent in our region is absolutely mind-boggling," he said. "The music programs in their respective schools are doing a remarkable job of preparing these students to perform with poise and confidence."
Zane Wagner, an incoming senior at Williamsport Area High School, will play the role of Tony, a member of the Jets who is struggling with loyalty to his friends, but wanting out of gang life. He has fallen in love with rival gang leader's sister, Maria and dreams of a better life in which they can live together.
Wagner has been a part of the cast of all five ACT UP! performances and also has been in all of his high school shows. He has played the role of Tobias Ragg in "Sweeney Todd" and recently played Ambrose Kemper in "Hello, Dolly."
"I believe that in some ways I can relate to Tony, but in others, not at all," Wagner said. "I think Tony's mindset is very similar to my own. He can really sense that something good is coming and he is really waiting for that one thing in his life, which ends up being Maria. I would say that I tend to look to the future and see what could be just outside the door that will make things better and more exciting."
Other main roles in the production include Jennie Judd, playing Maria; Tess Marshall, playing Anita; Caleb Albert, playing Bernardo; and Ryan Logue, playing Riff.
Auditions for the production were held in late April and rehearsals began May 12.
Since school let out, show rehearsals have been held Monday through Thursday, for three hours, with the days being split into music and scene work one day, choreography the next and scene work the last two days.
Judd, who is playing Maria, said her character helps the audience recognize the hatred and disaster between the two gangs.
"All she (Maria) wants is happiness, to be with Tony and for everyone to love one another," Judd said. "In this sense, I can relate to her."
Judd said the best thing about performing is being able to share her gifts with others and entertain the audience.
"I love becoming a character, developing it and working with such a dedicated cast and crew ... Our community has much to offer. Us kids that are involved are blessed to have the experiences we have within the CTL and CAC," Judd said.
Engel said she enjoys watching the students in rehearsal and she, along with music director, Marisa Hickey and choreographer, Tess Bower Gist, never underestimate the talent of the students or their ability to handle challenging material.
"We set the bar really high and the kids push it even higher," she said. "This show requires massive amounts of rehearsal, and this stuff is tough! When they are learning an extremely difficult section - and they get it - they get so psyched. They want to do it again and again to make it perfect."
Between grueling rehearsals and studying lines, songs and dance numbers, the students also have formed great friendships throughout the process.
Steele said his favorite thing about the summer musicals is watching the students develop these lifelong connections with each other.
"The bonding that occurs between students from schools in six counties through the production cycle is nothing short of inspirational," he said.
Wagner said he has met some of his best friends through ACT UP! and the CTL, and enjoys working with other students who share his passion for performing.
"The 'West Side Story' cast is one of the most talented group of people I have worked with," he said. "Everyone is literally so good. I don't think there is a single weak performer in the cast. 'West Side Story' is easily one of the most difficult shows musically, and honestly, our leads, supporting roles and all of the ensemble, make it look like a walk in the park. They're so incredible."
Engel said she thinks the ultimate success for the show is when people say "that was an awesome show" without it being followed by "for high school students." She said people often are surprised at the tremendous talent of the actors, that they sometimes forget that they are teenagers.
"The ACT UP! summer musical is the very best entertainment value in North Central Pennsylvania, bar none," Steele said.