NEWCASTLE — After a bit of a hiatus, I’ve been excited to preview Heartwood’s sold-out student production of “West Side Story,” opening Friday and running through Nov. 11. Alas, Mother Nature intervened with the Great Wind of 2017, and my preview was cancelled. Because of this, I’m especially pleased to be able to let the director share some thoughts with you in his own words.

I asked Griff Braley, why this production?

“‘West Side’ was on the list as a strong show with good history and lessons, etc. for the kids,” explained Braley. “It’s a tough one, so we’ve held off doing it till we had the numbers (particularly boys) and kids who could take on the very difficult leads. They are all stretching in these roles, but we are good with that.”

It’s not Braley’s first experience with “West Side Story.”

“I had the chance to work on a professional version of this show in the 1980s at Ogunquit Playhouse. It was a summer touring production and I was on the technical crew. Tweny-five shows later, it was in my head pretty strongly. And I had always liked the film version – though I like the play version better at this point. So – it was mostly just finding the right time to do the show.

“It works pretty well as an ensemble piece in our small space and I also wanted to work with Michelle Bruckner, our choreographer, in a more indepth setting. She’s done about 35 to 40 hours of instructions and it’s been great to get a feel of what kids without formal training can do with a decent amount of professional training. She’s a great teacher and artist, so the collaboration has been strong and the kids definitely are benefitting from an additional adult in the production staff.”

I recently heard a story about the musical theater masters who came together as a dream team to create “West Side Story” over several years and incarnations. Griff alluded to their mark on this iconic production.

“… The original creators of the show were working at such levels – Bernstein, Robbins, Sondheim … there’s more depth than I knew in the writing – or at least it is very tightly woven in the dialogue sections. And though Sondheim is not crazy about all the lyrics, they certainly give a sense of the direction that he will take in his later years.”

Asked about the greatest challenges, Braley admits, “It’s been a long, long process for all of us. The element of dance being so strong, it’s been a challenge to find adequate headspace (and hours) to devote to acting – which is sort of the front we’re attacking right now.

“We started really early on the tech in anticipation of this, and the integration of the orchestra who have such a hard score to play. Sean Fleming works his magic, as always, but the other players have rigorous parts … Audiences will see kids working and achieving at high levels, I believe. It’s already a fantastic start to our 15th season, and the challenges and pleasures of working with these kids never cease.”

If you’re not one of the lucky patrons who have their tickets in hand, as it were, you can add your name to the waiting list at [email protected] or 563-1373. And make note that in the future, with this local, growing theater company, you’ll need to get your tickets early.
For more information, visit www.heartwoodtheater.org.