St. Paul students challenged to play 'West Side Story' roles

Cary Ashby • Updated Feb 21, 2017 at 3:36 PM

St. Paul High School junior Joseph Swope is learning to be angry for his role in “West Side Story.”

“I really had to learn to be angry. It’s not something I’m good at,” the 16-year-old son of Jeff and Amie Swope said. “It’s been different. I don’t know how to be angry. I have to think of everything in my life that frustrates me.”

Joseph Swope plays Tony in the musical, which will be performed Marcg 2, 3 and 5 at St. Paul.

“He is on the outside of the gang, trying to get away from the fighting and falls in love. Maria is no good for him. Two days after they meet, he dies,” he said.

This musical has required the cast to do much more dancing than previous St. Paul productions such as “The Sound of Music.” Swope played Friedrich, portrayed by Nicholas Hammond in the 1965 movie starring Julie Andrews.

“The dancing has been very difficult. I pretty much have two left feet. There are a lot of steps to remember,” said Swope, who has learned his dance routine through a lot of practice and in small sections.

“West Side Story” is based on William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.”

Junior Ally Brown plays Anita, the sister-in-law of Maria (played by Mackenzie Smith) and Bernardo’s girlfriend. Brown, 17, said Anita essentially is the “older sister Maria never had and never wanted.”

“I try to help with her out with boy matters. I try to make (Maria) forget about Tony because Anita knows there’s nothing but trouble ahead,” added the daughter of Chris and Vicki Brown.

Ally Brown equates her role with being a mix of the nurse and Friar Laurence from “Romeo and Juliet.”

“She doesn’t really harbor Tony, but she doesn’t talk to anybody about their relationship,” she said.

Like Swope, Brown has been challenged in playing a character who is different from herself. The teenager said she has to be sexy and “step outside myself” when “channeling your inner Latina” in bringing Anita to life.

“When I start hearing the music and get into the scene, I really turn it on,” Brown said.

Brown performed in her first Norwalk Catholic School production in “Annie” when she was in the fifth grade. She played Molly, one of the orphans.

“By far that was one of my greatest experiences at St. Paul,” Brown said with a big smile. “I got to start the whole thing. I can still remember my first line.”

One of the cast’s challenges has been addressing the racial tension in “West Side Story.” Brown said the students “tease each other so we know how to get each other’s goat,” but she’s had to realize through media coverage, real-life experience and studying history that the issue of racism “has been around a long time.”

Watching the 1961 movie and videos of other productions of the musical also has given her insight into the musical her own performance. But finding her take on Anita has been an ongoing process.

“You have to start with the basics and then add yourself in as the character,” Brown said. “Each time we rehearse, I can find something new.”

What she’s realized is that Anita has had an impact on herself. The St. Paul student has discovered she has become more assertive, louder and started “clapping at people” when she talks.

“Anita is beginning to convert Ally into being loud,” she said with a laugh.

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