"West Side Story" "West Side Story"
"West Side Story"
A Star-Crossed Production
"West Side Story"

“WEST SIDE STORY,” THE STORY OF WARRING NEW YORK CITY gangs and two star-crossed lovers, is a musical masterpiece. Despite the challenging music, dancing and drama, the Bard Hall Players decided to tackle this enormous production as the Fall 2005 musical. But tackle does not even begin to describe the series of battles we subsequently waged.
      Finding a director was our first hurdle. We had a musical director (Chris Brooks), three choreographers, and many people waiting to audition, but no director. On the verge of giving up, we met public health student Ollie Richie (and first time BHPer), who, after a bit of coercion, became director and cast 37 amazingly talented actors, singers, and dancers. Little did we know that our struggle to find a director would be just the beginning of a series of incredible struggles we would need to overcome.
      Within just a week of our first few rehearsals, our leading lady could not walk. Jenny Toyohara, cast as “Maria,” was suffering from popliteal artery entrapment syndrome. After undergoing bilateral surgery, she planned to be ready. Jenny’s dedication to the production was phenomenal. On crutches or in a wheelchair, she read her lines, sang her songs, and hobbled across stage, learning the choreography and blocking all her positions on stage with no sign of the pain or discomfort she must have been feeling.
      While rehearsing the rumble between the Jets and the Sharks, which involves a choreographed fight scene between Riff (Sean Escola) and Bernardo (David Regelmann), an overly zealous punch from Sean made contact with David’s jaw, leading to a trip to the ER for a torn upper lip. Five hours and six stitches later, we were back on track. A few weeks later, during another energetic rumble rehearsal, Sean sustained a bruised rib that prevented him from dancing for several days. Baby John (Lamont Barlow) and Graziella (Jeni Harms) sprained their ankles during one of our strenuous sequences. During dress rehearsal, Rosalia (Hsaio Liu) bravely continued dancing on a foot that was swollen and blue after a particularly violent collision in the gym dance. Consuelo (Toni Miniero) survived a metal bed frame falling on her head during a set change on opening night! The backstage skills used by future ER physicians (rest, ice, compress, and elevation) were not exactly the skills we expected for this medical school production.
      Despite being bruised and battered, our cast maintained high spirits throughout the arduous rehearsals (which for many cast members involved two to three hours of practice almost every day). However, our troubles were not over. While constructing the set, a large piece of wood slipped from the hands of one of our very capable (unnamed) set constructors, tearing a hole in the expensive and hard-to-replace projector screen in Alumni Auditorium. Through the grace and understanding of P&S, our show was allowed to go on.
      Then came show week. We thought every imaginable crisis was behind us. Maria (Jenny Toyohara) had survived her surgery and even recovered after being re-hospitalized for a suture abscess the previous week (she attended rehearsals with a hep-locked IV). The cast and crew were ready. We had a full orchestra. The lights were mounted and focused. The set pieces were almost finished. The program was ready to go to print, and “West Side Story” posters could be seen all over the medical center.
      But it was not meant to be. On Monday, Nov. 14, three days before opening night, came a phone call that Alumni Auditorium had to be closed immediately because of the discovery of an unstable wall that could collapse on top of the stage at any minute.
      We debated postponing the show. With family members flying in for the show, exams approaching, and residency interviews coming up for the lead, we decided the show must go on.
      The days that followed were madness as we scrambled to find an alternative location. We considered local schools, theaters at the Morningside campus, even a theater in Times Square. Either the venues were booked or the stages were too small to host our 37-member cast and full orchestra. Dress rehearsals continued in the Bard Hall basement.
      The day before opening night, we found out we could use the Winter Garden space in the new Children’s Hospital. Within a matter of hours, we had arranged for a wooden stage, bleachers for the audience, lighting and sound facilities, and a makeshift green room. New posters were printed, e-mail announcing the new location was sent, and we prepared for a dress rehearsal that evening. Then came news that we would not be able to use the space because of regulations related to the Joint Commission’s visit to the hospital.
      After all that we had been through, we faced the inevitable: The show could not go on, at least not that weekend.

Stage Changes! Illness! Injury! Set Damage! — And that was before the curtain went up.

We had no choice but to postpone the show to the weekend of Dec. 1, when Alumni Auditorium would reopen. The lead was able to reschedule her interviews, and none of the other 37 cast members had conflicts with the new performance dates. In the Bard Hall Lounge the weekend of the original date, we managed to put on a dress rehearsal (minus lights, sound, and large set pieces) for the family and friends who had flown in to see the show.
      Cut now to Dec. 1, opening night. An hour before curtain, I received a hysterical phone call from Jenny — our “Maria.” She was hunched over in acute stomach pain so severe she could not walk; she could barely breathe. As Jenny was rushed to the ER, we realized we had no Maria for the show. But tickets had been sold and the audience was waiting in the lobby. We knew that the show had to go on. But like all BHP shows, we had no understudies, and we didn’t want someone reading from the script on stage.
      It was Baby John (Lamont Barlow) who came up with our bold solution. Kimberly “Z” McClelland, our amazing vocal coach and an extraordinarily talented singer, would read Maria’s lines and sing her songs from the balcony of the auditorium, while I would serve as the “body” of Maria — pantomiming most of the show and doing her dances (which I knew as a choreographer). It seemed to work. The audience enjoyed the show: They gave us a standing ovation! Jenny was able to recover the next day and went on to perform for the next three shows to the largest audiences in the 40-year history of the Bard Hall Players.
      So many times, our production seemed doomed to fail, just like the love of Tony and Maria in “West Side Story.” Unlike the star-crossed lovers, however, we were able to survive. The experience of overcoming these challenges against all odds will remain in our hearts for years to come.

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