Royal rumble: Greenwood-based theater troupe tackles ‘West Side Story’
In their leather jackets, scruffy jeans and sock skirts, the young band on one side of the room were the epitome of the bad boys and good girls of the 1950s.
Their counterparts sported sleek shirts, flowing dresses and gold chains – more street style than anything.
Together, the two groups embodied the iconic fashion and timeless drama of a classic story: “West Side Story.”
The Jets and Sharks rekindle their rivalry in the latest production from Greenwood-based Agape Theater Company. The troupe felt it was the perfect time to tackle the electric spectacle as well as its charged themes.
“We really wanted to focus a little more on diversity and inclusion, equality and fairness. It was necessary for us to choose a show that not only showcases different cultures, but also sends a message that is still current and relevant today,” said April Barnes, co-director of the show.
“West Side Story” opens Friday at Lutheran High School in south Indianapolis. The show will be held until Sunday, then from June 24 to 26.
For the cast, working on such a well-known musical at a time when the ideas presented in the film are more important than ever has been a privilege.
“It was a roller coaster; it was intense,” said Rebekah Barajas, who plays Maria in the musical. “It was unique, because it’s not done very often. This show is so hard to put together, just because of how emotional and controversial a subject it is about.
Agape Theater Company was founded as the theater ministry of Our Lady of Greenwood Catholic Church to provide more opportunities for young actors on the South Side. Since then he has directed works ranging from “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Into the Woods Jr.” to “Macbeth” and “Newsies”.
Their production “Les Misérables” won the award for the most impressive youth theater production of 2017, while the production of “The Tempest” won the award for the most impressive youth theater production of 2019.
With its history of taking on heavy and sometimes difficult shows, business leaders weren’t intimidated by “West Side Story.” The musical transports audiences to 1950s New York, focusing on the tension between the Jets, a Caucasian gang, and their downtown counterparts the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang. Shark’s performers are chosen to reflect the diversity of the Puerto Rican community. The romance between Tony, a member of the Jets, and Maria, a Puerto Rican whose family and friends are aligned with the Sharks, ignites tension between the two groups.
The goal of Agape’s approach is to raise awareness and build bridges through this breathtaking musical theatrical experience.
“It’s so relevant, and it’s brought so many new cast members to Agape. It’s really refreshing and eye-opening,” Barnes said.
The cast is made up of a number of actors from Johnson County and southern Indianapolis, with some participants hailing from as far away as Martinsville, Avon, and Ball State University in Muncie.
To prepare, the entire cast watched Steven Spielberg’s 2021 version of “West Side Story” to connect as a team. Then they took a lot of time during each Saturday rehearsal to talk about issues like immigration, lack of resources and support.
Barnes, who taught these sessions, wanted to emphasize that we are all created out of love.
“It was sometimes difficult. Sometimes when you take baby steps – and this is a baby step – there can be a slight kickback. But overall, looking at where we are now, we’ve come a long way,” Barnes said.
The musical was actually cast in late 2021, and the whole team has been working on it for six months. Given its difficulty and depth of emotions, the process had its challenges, said Johnny Gaiffe, who plays Tony in the musical.
“It’s one of those shows that touches on such a moving and important subject,” he said. “We still really have to talk about it.”
Although the youth theater company has worked to make the show as family friendly as possible, “West Side Story” by its very nature addresses some serious issues. Depictions throughout the musical include gang violence, a mock gunshot, and the attempted assault of a young woman. Agape staff warn that it is aimed at young adults and adults.
“I’m really proud of this cast, because a lot of them had to do roles that I don’t think they would normally do. They had to push themselves physically and mentally to play those roles,” Barnes said.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
“West Side Story”
Who: Agape Theater Company
When: 7:30 p.m. on June 17, 18, 24 and 25; 2:30 p.m. on June 18 and 25; 3 p.m. on June 19 and 26
Where: Lutheran High School, 5555 S. Arlington Ave., Indianapolis
Tickets: Adults $10, children 11 and under $5, VIP seats $15