The Upside of the West Side Story

Some 45 years ago, a young drama teacher at La Cumbre Junior High, Jack Nakano, set the wheels of local youth theatre in motion. He envisioned a cohesive theatre curriculum to be collaborated by all the high-school and junior-high drama staff. With other teachers, he also launched a summer program – Santa Barbara Youth Theatre – to keep kids involved and give theatre teachers something exciting to work on in their “off season.” His biggest supporter – and true ‘angel’ – was community leader-philanthropist Annette Slavin. The heyday of this effort was the 1960s and 1970s…but the sizzle had fizzled out by the 1980s.

Now youth theatre is having a renaissance. After I wrote last week about the local high schools, I found out about a production of West Side Story taking place at La Cumbre Junior High School. Junior High? This I had to see.

The current principal is fully supportive of the arts and including them in her curriculum. Her school has the highest percentage of minorities, and the lowest social-economic base. But her passion for the kids and for the arts is unmistakable, and perhaps inherited. Principal Jo Ann Caines is the daughter of Annette Slavin.

It has been twenty years since La Cumbre has even performed a musical, so the selection of West Side Story may seem overly ambitious for a junior high. But in light of the recent gang activities, the choice (made a year ago) was timely, and the reintroduction of a musical at La Cumbre will have long-lasting and positive repercussions.

The man behind the mission is Gary Smith (producer, vocal direction) who worked with other professional theatre artists (including Richard Hoag and Tony Miratti – both Youth Theatre alumni) to bring this outstanding theatre effort to the junior high.

It was especially thrilling to see students discovering what they are capable of doing through the stage: the discipline of learning lines and dances, taking direction, working as a team, building self-confidence by getting up before an audience, building self-esteem by recognizing that every role – even the smallest parts – is a necessary ingredient for the whole play to work.

Then there is the fun of uncovering sheer talent, and here is just a sampling of what I found:

Aaron Dutton as Tony had the perfect interpretation of his role. It was clear he thought the gangs were so “yesterday” and that he had simply outgrown them, even finding them a bit silly. Aaron portrays well the angst Tony feels upon hearing Maria is dead, and begs Chino to get him, too. Savanna Jordan as Anita had all the right feistiness and independence – and the voice! (If she continues with her singing, we could likely see her on American Idol in 6 years) Another beautiful face and voice in the role of Rosalia was Jenai Howard. Bernardo’s shoes were filled by Hugo Gallindo, who thoughtfully played a focused, very believable character, not just a caricature.

Talented Robert Harrell as Riff, sang well, moved well, and was consistent in putting across his role as the exuberant leader of the Jets. Sebastian Valladares was a fearless actor in the role of Action. He knew how to inhabit the role and sell it with much energy and passion; another young actor in the making.

America Estrada was exquisite as Maria. A very intelligent actress, she played the role thoroughly – down to every gesture and facial expression. She was so good she could have been playing the part in high school or community theatre. Then came the shocker – she just moved here from Mexico 7 months ago!

Clearly the kids have a good taste of a job well done. There is well-deserved excitement for students to first hear artistic approval with applause. Bringing theatre back to La Cumbre is going to have a lasting impression on students; not only does it encourage talent, it builds appreciation for the arts, it gives their school work new meaning in that social studies and current events suddenly have perspective.

By the way – this was the full-length production of West Side Story – not an abridged, or “Bernstein-Lite” version. It was an astounding production on many levels of achievement. (Oh, terrific set too by the way!)

Three Updates

Last week I told you the Petlows - Mike and Jennie - were celebrating their 60th anniversary. At a dinner held in their honor, they received congratulatory messages from Mayor Marty Blum, Supervisor Brooks Firestone, former Governor Pete Wilson, current governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, the Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper (Mike and Jennie were originally from Canada) and (no, I am not kidding) the Queen of England, Elizabeth II.

Sandy Everett the former Barbarette and local performer, singer, tap teacher, passed away from cancer at the age of 60.

I almost hate to give away my secret source of Fiesta finery, but there is an Old Spanish Days costume sale this weekend at the Carriage Museum. People with old or new costumes to sell will drag ‘em down there, along with shoes, shawls, mantillas, hats, … an amazing range and array of apparel. Saturday from 9am until 1pm at the Old Spanish Days Carriage Museum at Pershing Park on Castillo.