Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim had the pulse of New York City gang life during the '50s in mind when they wrote the music and lyrics for West Side Story.
The story blended the bigotry of the era with the musical romance of doomed love -- a modern-day version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
The Academy of Children's Theatre tackles the challenging musical West Side Story in its spring production, which opens March 22 at the ACT studio, 213 Wellsian Way, Richland.
Maria and Tony are the doomed lovers. She is the sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. Tony is a former member of the Jets, led by his best friend Riff.
But Tony doesn't want anything to do with the gang life anymore, and when he falls in love with Maria, all hell breaks loose.
Whitney Rodgers, 17, plays Maria, and Tyrell Wilde, 20, is Tony. Bernardo is played by Breck Huerta, 20, and Riff is portrayed by Richard Nelson, 17.
Rodgers said even though she's no stranger to the theater, it's been quite the challenge.
"Fully becoming Maria has been a challenge," said Rodgers of Kennewick. "She falls in love, loses her brother and then loses the man she falls in love with. To create that kind of emotion in two hours is very challenging."
Singing is her forte, a trait she inherited from her mother the former Miss Tri-Cities Paris Paige Rodgers.
"I am a singer first, then an actor, and a dancer last," she said. "And although Maria dances the least of all the characters, I still have some troubles. Luckily, I have great directors to help me look good."
Her co-star Wilde of Kennewick had a few challenges to face as well.
"I watched the movie and like it, but I didn't really like Tony," he said. "I was put off every time he sang because I couldn't stand the shape of his mouth. But on a serious note, I really could understand the hate and racism that was there in the story between the Jets and Sharks and how that hate affected everything that transpired throughout the movie."
He also didn't see much difference between gangs of yesteryear and the gangs of today.
"The gang theme in West Side Story feels very real to me," he said. "(The Jets and Sharks) don't seem tame at all compared to today. I feel like they might have even been worse back then because of the racism that was flying around, not just in common citizens, but in the police force as well."
Nelson of Kennewick said portraying Riff meant he had to toughen up a bit.
"I like to think of myself as kind of a softy," Nelson said. "But Riff is supposed to be tough and a leader, and I'm more of a follower. It's been pretty hard to portray his fierceness while still keeping the character's cool."
The show's director, Jo Brodzinski, couldn't be happier with her choice for the leads.
"This is an amazing group of young people," she said. "The subject matter is both difficult and foreign to most of these folks. We've had them do character summaries of who they are, where they came from and what they feel.
"Getting them ready for such a difficult task with acting like they've never done before has been awesome."
She also praised her cast for their outstanding grasp of the show's difficult choreography for dancing and fighting.
"That took mega hours of work, concentration and discipline," Brodzinski said. "The music of Bernstein and Sondheim is the hardest they have ever sung. It will be thrilling to see the end result."
Rebecca Kelly, 16, plays Bernardo's girlfriend Anita. She, as well as her fellow cast members, praised Brodzinski for bringing out the best in their acting.
"I was kinda scared and intimidated by her when rehearsals started," Kelly said. "But she is truly the sweetest person you could ever meet. She is extremely inspiring. When she talks about the different characters, I can feel the words she says transform the way I think and feel as an actress."
Kelly, of Kennewick, also said it took a few weeks for her to get into the true character of Anita.
"Anita manages to portray every emotion in the book -- happy, motherlike, excited, frustrated, sexy, annoyed, devastated, fury, reproachful, sympathetic, terrified, hateful, shocked, remorseful," she said. "By the time I get home at night, I feel like I just drowned."
But her most nerve-wracking challenge was tackling Anita's Puerto Rican accent, so she decided to not fret over the accent and make sure she concentrates on capturing Anita's attitude and vivacious personality.
Curtain time is 7 p.m. March 22-24, 29-31. Tickets are $13 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. Tickets are available at the door.
The March 22 performance only is $7 for all students.
*Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; firstname.lastname@example.org