Special for The Republic
Before rehearsals for "West Side Story" even begin, the young actors of Valley Youth Theatre have been dancing for two hours. And there's more dancing at rehearsal. And singing.
The troupe's rendition of the 1957 Broadway classic opens Friday, Aug. 8, at the Herberger Theater Center.
"By their participation in the dance class, they strengthen their stamina, technique and dance abilities," producing artistic director Bobb Cooper said.
Based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," "West Side Story" tells the story of star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony, who are affiliated with two rival teen gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, in Manhattan in the 1950s. The play has ethnically charged language and themes; the Sharks are Puerto Rican and the Jets are Anglos.
Valley Youth Theatre, which celebrates its 26th season this year, first performed the show in 1995 in the basement of the former Tower Plaza mall.
Alumni Lucas Coatney and Katie Rex Casey, who played Baby John and Anita and Anybodys, are choreographing the play.
Coatney said the choreography, developed by Jerome Robbins, who directed the 1961 film version of "West Side Story," challenges the cast to express deep feelings of hate, fear, hope and love during athletic dance numbers.
Coatney said the show's themes of love being blind and the need to find a place to belong hold relevance to today's audiences.
"It's a rough story about friends, following your heart, finding love and discovering who you are in a 1950s gang-ridden community," he said.
Cooper said such productions as "West Side Story" not only help young people grow as actors, dancers and singers, they also teach responsibility, time management and dedication to their craft.
"Watching these young people grow, watching them find themselves, it gives me great joy to see them work hard and be so dedicated in an effort to be the best they can be," Cooper said.
The theater company uses scaffolding and chain-length fencing within the set to give the illusion of street scenes.
"It is like the audience is watching the rumble from the other side of the fence," Cooper said.
A number of company newcomers take on leading or major supporting roles in the 2014 production.
As Maria, Sedona Urias-Ramonett plans to emphasize how her character hasn't been impacted by her surroundings in the same way as her brother, Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, and his girlfriend, Anita.
"I've always wanted to play Maria. It's a dream role for me. She's kind of young and innocent, and I'm kind of like that," Urias-Ramonett said. "I really want to play out her innocence and the love she has for Tony. I want it to be very pure and come from the heart."
Megan Farinella plays Anita, a role she also portrayed with Actors Youth Theatre. She plans to depict her character as less forceful and angry and more thoughtful and expressive.
"This time, I'm trying to give her more depth. She is very intuitive. She can be passionate, but she thinks things out," Farniella said. "She is very aware of herself and confident in her curves. That's what I like about this role."
Jonathan Ramirez hopes to show the dual sides of Bernardo as a strong leader with a tough exterior and a young man with internal fears.
"Everyone is against him, including the Jets and the cops. He's afraid that because of his skin color, everyone hates him, and he cannot change that," Ramirez said.
Details: Aug. 8-14. 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe St., Phoenix. $20-$38, plus $3.50 fee for online orders. 602-253-8188, vyt.com.