Cumberland performance center tells ‘West Side Story’

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CUMBERLAND — “Could it be? Yes, it could. Something’s coming, something good.”

The “West Side Story” lyric is particularly fitting because the musical will light up the Greely Center for the Arts at Greely High School this month as the first major production to be staged at the new School Administrative District 51 facility.

The show at 303 Main St. will run March 28-30 at 7 p.m., and March 31 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $8 for students and $10 for adults, and box office information is available at msad51.org or tickets@greelydramaboosters.org.

The romantic musical tragedy has provided an eye-opening experience for its teenage cast and crew. Along with stretching their singing, dancing and acting chops and learning the rigorous technical aspects that go on behind the scenes, they have also been immersed in the divisions within American society that arguably exist as much today as when the 1957 show premiered on Broadway.

Set in 1950s New York City, the production depicts a romance set against a turf war between two teenage street gangs: the Sharks, who come from Puerto Rico, and the white Jets. Former Jets member Tony falls for Maria, the sister of the Sharks’ leader.

Liz Rollins is the director of the show, possibly best known for its 1961 film incarnation. Senior Camden Bubblo and sophomore Annalise Panici play Tony and Maria, star-crossed lovers inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Senior Cameron Sarchi is the stage manager.

They, along with arts center manager Jen Segal, on March 7 discussed the significance of “West Side Story” as a social educational tool and a way of showing off the center’s state-of-the-art capabilities. The 26,000-square-foot building, which seats 510, is a distant cry from the “cafetorium,” a combined cafeteria and auditorium Greely student performers used in the past.

“Being in here … there’s so much new equipment, a much larger stage, which gives us a greater opportunity to do bigger shows like “West Side Story,” and also just a better space to host events that also aren’t for theater,” like the Maine Music Educators Association’s District II Honors Choir and a naturalization ceremony, Bubblo said.

“It feels like a whole new life has not only been breathed into the Greely drama program, but also performing arts in our community as a whole,” Panici said. “It just feels like there’s a new-found respect with this space, which is really beautiful to see.”

“Everybody was used to us being like this little corner of the school,” Bubblo added. “And now that we have a big, brand-new building, everybody’s suddenly very aware of the drama program.”

The program has boosted his confidence in singing and acting, allowing him to grow from his first show two years ago, to the physically and emotionally challenging role of Tony, Bubblo noted. He plans to study business and theater in college, and perhaps someday run a space like the Greely Center.

“Being in a space like this, being able to learn all the ins and outs of how to run it from Mrs. Segal, and all the new technology … is incredibly helpful for something I want to do for a career,” Bubblo explained.

The production has a cast and crew of about 60, which include music director Sarah Bailey, choreographer Vanessa Beyland, technical director Kevin Rollins, costumer Brenda Clark and Puerto Rican cultural consultant Enid Arvelo.

Panici was drawn to the music sung by Maria, as well as the character’s evolution throughout the course of the story from childlike innocence to premature adulthood forged by tragedy.

The play’s harsher scenes contrast with the lighter romance of Maria and Tony, Panici said.

Reflecting that softer theme is the song “Somewhere,” a ballet scene cut from the film in which the entire cast sings in six-part harmony. Liz Rollins called it a “gorgeous, hopeful song” that longs for a day when “maybe there’ll be a place that is safe and beautiful, and there are no problems and everyone can get along.”

She said she hopes the production will “illuminate the devastation xenophobia creates in society and the awareness that we should celebrate both our human similarities and cultural differences.”

The issues of prejudice, immigration, sexual assault and gun violence that “West Side Story” spotlighted six decades ago remain all-too-present today, Rollins noted.

“It’s really interesting, doing this play now as compared to even like 10 years ago, just because of our political climate and how negatively charged it is, and how it’s really one side versus the other side,” Panici said.

“I hope the audience can take it in a modern context … as well as looking back at when it actually took place,” she added.

The story’s calamitous conclusion demonstrates “a good example of what we don’t want things to come to at some point,” Sarchi said. “Because in this show, the only way that their conflicts are even resolved for a brief moment is with the death of two … children.”

The lessons the audience learns from watching a play go hand-in-hand with those the cast experiences from performing it. To embrace what it’s like to be someone else, and better understand that person’s struggle, by immersion in that role, and portraying it on the stage.

“Educational theater, in particular, gives (students) the great opportunity to really stretch that empathy muscle,” Segal said. “To teach empathy, and learn empathy, by stepping into somebody else’s shoes.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Greely High School senior Camden Bubblo, left, and sophomore Annalise Pancini play Tony and Maria, the two leads in “West Side Story.” It is the first major production to be held at the Greely Center for the Arts in Cumberland.

The large ensemble bringing “West Side Story” to the Greely Center for the Arts this month includes Annalise Panici (Maria), left, Camden Bubblo (Tony), stage manager Cameron Sarchi, arts center manager Jen Segal, and director Liz Rollins.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.