St. Louis Gets its Own Edition of ‘West Side Story’—Starring Young Actors Who May Understand It Best

 In Culture, Feature

There are youth theatre productions, and then there is the kind of theatre that shines most when performed by young actors. The Center of Creative Arts (COCA)’s new production of “West Side Story” is firmly the latter—and that’s due, in no small part, to the talent and insight of its cast.

One of the most beloved musicals of all time, “West Side Story” retells the story of “Romeo and Juliet” through the lens of a blue-collar neighborhood in 1950s New York City. You probably already know the story: two rival gangs of teenagers—the Jets and the Sharks—have been rumbling for years when Maria, the beautiful sister of the Sharks’ leader, falls in love with the Jets’ co-founder and former member Tony. Divided not only by gang loyalty but by racism—Maria is a recent immigrant from Puerto Rico, Tony the son of Polish parents in an era where many recent Europeans hadn’t been fully welcomed into whiteness—the lovers hide their doomed romance as their friends and families escalate a turf war that soon leaves two dead, and Tony caught up in the middle. Passions flare, and from there, we all know how this one ends. 

West Side Story Group COCA ALIVE GUIDED

Bernstein, Laurents and Sondheim’s 1957 musical may not seem like a perfect analogue for modern St. Louis. As the gangs tussle for control over playgrounds and parks, it can feel a little quaint—at least, the stakes feel considerably lower than our current era, which has seen the war on drugs and a plague of mass incarceration ravage the lives of the young and old for over a generation. Bare-knuckle battles after lindy hop dances, passion-drunk teens in Chuck Taylor high-tops and crinoline skirts: when set against the scale of the (often state-sanctioned) violence that many young people of color, in particular, experience in today’s streets, the tragedy of the Jets and the Sharks might seem to pale a bit.

But this production of “West Side Story” begs you to look a little closer—and that’s in no small part because of the power of its cast.  Made up of teenagers from across the St. Louis metro area and just beyond it, the members of COCA’s company have grown up in the epicenter of an intense conversation about how young bodies are meant to move through our troubled and often violent world, and that powerful experience shows in their performances.

For Delaney Holliday’s Maria, the answer to how to navigate a war zone seems to be simple: love, and love fiercely, and laugh whenever you can. This deeply mature young actor brings equal measures of goofiness and grace to her role, a choice that beautifully highlights Maria’s status as the wisest character in the show. Sometimes, when you find yourself in a turbulent situation in which you have no control, it is wise to find some pockets of light. Holliday’s choice to lean into the humorous aspects of her character is a delightful one that few adult actors make in this role, and it makes her swings to the tragic even more gutting. Dylan Finch’s Tony shines just as bright, especially in song—he has an incredible crystalline tenor, and more importantly, a clear control over his instrument that’s far beyond his years. But he also brings an earnest, Labrador-puppy devotion to the part that deftly reminds the audience of just how young all these characters are meant to be. It serves as a unique and important anchor in a show that’s often performed by 20-somethings, and it underscores the themes of the original in surprising and fascinating ways.

West Side’s entire company brings that same blend of insight, energy and talent, and it almost certainly points to the value of COCA’s model. It’s hard to believe that a production this professional was mounted after just two hundred hours of rehearsal, while also doubling as an opportunity at theater education for its performers. One suspects that the particular quality of this show owed something to COCA’s commitment to diversity and providing scholarships to talented students in financial need, as well as their expansive slate of classes and programming across the performing and visual arts spectrum. It must be noted that some of the young dancers in this show—particularly Nathanael Hirst’s Bernardo and the featured soloists in the “Somewhere” ballet, here re-interpreted as a modern dance sequence, and easily the play’s most moving moment—seem just about primed for professional careers.

But training alone can’t bring the level of depth and thoughtfulness that this cast exudes. Cameron Cai’s explosive, wounded Action; Michael Harp’s syncopated, sly-talking Riff; RohnniRose Mantilla’s street-wise and sassy Anita; Michael Lee’s haunting Chino; there truly isn’t a weak link in this company, and that holds for every single resident of this fictional neighborhood.

We still live in an America where the Officer Krupkes of the world have one thousand ways to cut so-called delinquent kids down to size. But no comparable knife ever seems to be applied to structures of power—much less give the kids who grew up under that power a healthy, open space to dance their rage out. There may be no one better to teach us that than St. Louis teenagers in a summer musical.

Top photo courtesy of Paul Green.
“West Side Story” group photo courtesy of COCA.


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