Critics Agree, ‘West Side Story’ is a Hit


Photo courtesy of Brenda Funk

Freshman Kassidy Kepner sits (middle) surrounded by her friends who try to persuade that Puerto Rico was better than America.

Anna Stewart, News Managing Editor

One of Broadway’s most iconic musicals came to Rockville April 11, 12 and 13, as the RHS drama department, directed by English teacher Krista McKim, performed Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story” for the annual spring musical.   

This year, however, cast members were provided with some additional motivation to put on a memorable performance: the attendance of 54 student and adult play critics from the Cappies, an international critique and awards program for high school theater students.

“It’s basically the high school version of the Tony’s,” McKim said.  “For the first year ever, we are part of the Maryland, Virginia, D.C. Cappies.  So, we send out critics to five shows and then critics come to our shows to write reviews and nominate kids for awards.”

But with only two and a half months to prepare, and a school music trip to New York the week before opening night, the pressure was on to make sure Rockville’s rendition of Tony and Maria’s tragic love story would win over the Cappies critics and live up to the high acclaim of the original, which received six Tony Award nominations.

“There was a lot of stress over whether we would actually get enough rehearsal time,” senior and member of the stage crew Ryley Gardner said.  “But, that happens every year and the show ended up being such a success.”

Inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” West Side Story follows the rivalry of two 1950’s New York City gangs, the Jets, an all-white gang led by Riff played by senior Dylan Hawkins and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo played by junior Lucas Glander as they compete for control of the streets.  But when Riff’s best friend Tony played by junior Jacob Lunsford and Bernardo’s sister Maria played by senior Gabriela Sanchez meet by chance, things get complicated as the star-crossed lovers try to end the rift that is keeping them apart.

“I think it’s such a classic story that still applies today,” McKim said.  “I think that so many of the issues that they struggle with in ‘West Side Story’ we see played on the news every day.  What does it mean to be an American? Who belongs, who doesn’t?”

Sanchez was the star of the show, portraying the graceful innocence of Maria with a consistent Puerto Rican accent and angelic singing voice that especially shown through during her performance of “I Feel Pretty.”  The chemistry between her and Lunsford was hard to deny, and the audience became more and more engrossed by their love as the show went on.

Another stand-out performance came from freshman Donna Mbulaiteye in her role as Anita, Maria’s friend and future sister-in-law.  Cappie critic from Oakton High School, Isabella Walrath, acknowledged Mbulaiteye in her review, equally impressed by her “stunning vocal tones” in “A Boy Like That” but also her “serious tone and reserved manner” which showed the weight of her character’s struggles.

Despite all the key performances, one of the most memorable parts of the show occurred right before curtain close.  The entire cast came out to read a letter begging for help from the community to keep chorus teacher Cynthia Diehl’s position, which she had revealed to her classes had been cut to part time for next year and she would taking another position at Paint Branch High School.

“We chose the play to get our message out because Ms. Diehl played such a huge role in the musical and helping us with the singing portion of it,” senior Azaelea Lazo said.  “And we knew that day [Friday] would be one of the most crowded, especially with all the reviewers.”

The Cappies released four reviews along with their nominations for RHS for 28 different categories on their website following the Friday night performance.  Sanchez was nominated for Lead Actress in a Musical, while Mbulaiteye was nominated for Female Vocalist and Supporting Actress in a Musical. Hawkins received nominations for Male Vocalist and Supporting Actor in a Musical.

Toward the end of May, a Tonys-like celebration will occur at the Kennedy Center, where all nominated shows perform a song, and then the final Cappies awards are presented with a trophy.

“Schools from Montgomery County don’t usually win any awards,” McKim said.  “But, I love my kids. They’re amazing. So, we’ll see!”