It was around 8 p.m. in early October, and Ken Stack strode purposefully around the orchestra pit in the Gracie Theatre at Husson University. It was the start of the third hour of the evening’s rehearsal for Husson’s production of “West Side Story,” which opens on Friday, Oct. 16. He gestured to the approaching dancers and singers, as they crept onstage. Fingers snapping, eyes intent, the Jets and the Sharks were squaring off — albeit in Bangor, instead of Manhattan.
Stack, the director, is the primary force behind Husson’s “West Side,” the grand opening event for the Gracie and one of the biggest community theater productions in the area in years. So in the days leading to curtains up, Stack, a 30-plus-year theater veteran in Maine, was busy doling out equal parts of support, criticism, advice, humor and politely worded pleas to focus and get to work. With 34 cast members, 23 musicians and 15 crew members, he has his hands full.
“It’s all the best parts of community theater, where everyone pitches in to pull all the pieces together,” Stack said. “We have longtime community theater folks, we have college students, we have high school students. We’re working with amazing professionals. We were so pleased by the turnout for auditions back in April. It’s been a wild ride.”
Stack, along with music director Trond Saeverud, 23 Bangor Symphony Orchestra musicians, choreographer Ann Ross and set designer Brave Williams, has spent the better part of six months casting, rehearsing and building the show, which will run from Oct. 16-18 at the Gracie at Husson.
“West Side Story,” Leonard Bernstein’s retelling of the classic Romeo and Juliet story, set in 1950s New York, rather than 16th century Italy, is a hallmark of American music, theater, dance and cinema. Despite its firm place in American culture, it is not performed regularly by community theaters for one big reason: It’s a very difficult show.
“The great challenge, and the great joy about Bernstein and about ‘West Side Story’ is just that it’s so bloody weird,” Stack said. “There is nothing traditional at all about it. Everything is slightly off-center. You never really get used to it. It’s a very unique animal. But everyone has risen to the challenge.”
“West Side” centers, of course, on the forbidden love of Tony and Maria, played in this show by Jason Wilkes and Mary Ellms. Wilkes is a familiar face in productions at the University of Maine, The Grand and the Northport Music Theatre. Ellms, a Dexter native who graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington, has been seen in Ten Bucks Theatre and Slightly Off Center Players productions. Both Wilkes and Ellms have the necessary vocal range and power for their demanding roles — and the rest of the cast lives up to that standard as well.
The dancing, however, is another matter. Jerome Robbins’ original choreography was a revelation when it debuted in 1959, memorably combining ballet, modern dance and musical theater choreography. Robbins’ athletic leaps and tumbles were not a reality for the Husson production — but Ann Ross made it work anyway.
“[West Side Story] is something that everyone wants to do, but they’re afraid to do it,” said Ross, the show’s choreographer and head of the University of Maine’s dance department. “We knew that we weren’t going to be able to do Jerome Robbins’ incredible choreography step for step. My task was to create the essence of that, without the technicality. We have the finger snaps. We have the fight scenes. What we’ve done is make it appropriate to the level of talent we have, without dumbing it down.”
Music director Saeverud leads an orchestra of 23 musicians, composed of his colleagues in the Bangor Symphony — the first time the BSO has backed a community musical theater production. Set designer Brave Williams’ re-creation of 1950s Manhattan is a marvel — two huge, two-story set pieces, mounted on wheels, which rotate around to show inside and street scenes. There’s 50 feet of fly space available in the Gracie Theatre, so Williams and his set builders had lots of room to work with.
Being the first show at a brand-new, state-of-the-art, $6.5 million venue, it might appear there’s a little pressure to make “West Side Story” a spectacular success. Stack, however, views it as a welcome challenge, and doesn’t feel too much pressure. After all, he has been directing local theatrical productions for decades. If anyone is a master of dealing with stress, he is.
“Sure, ‘The Fantasticks’ might have been an easier choice. Small cast, tiny set. But where’s the fun in that?” Stack said. “We have so many possibilities with this new facility, artistically and technically speaking. It’s been a blast to explore them all, and now we can’t wait to share them with everyone. We’re going to open it up with a bang.”
“West Side Story” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16 and 17, and 2 p.m. Oct. 18, at the Gracie Theatre at Husson University. Tickets are $25 for the general public and $5 for Husson students. A free preview for Husson and NESCom students only is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15. Tickets for the preview can be obtained at the student activities office by showing your student I.D. For more information or for tickets, call 941-7129.