Cast members perform an excerpt from the musical West Side Story at the 'Nouveau Riche' wedding and evening wear shop. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
Anne Somes says that as a musical, West Side Story ''touches all the bases''.
''It's got an amazing score and amazing choreography … and a classic story based on Romeo and Juliet,'' she says.
Somes is directing the show - which has a score by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents - for her theatre company Free Rain.
Cast members perform an excerpt from the musical West Side Story. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
The show premiered on Broadway in 1957 and has remained popular, attaining classic status. Apart from its soaring music - the songs include Tonight, Maria, America and Somewhere - Somes thinks it has an enduring appeal to young people: its main characters are members of rival street gangs - the Puerto Rican immigrant Sharks and the white Jets - who are forced to stand on their own two feet, the adults in their lives being either corrupt or ineffectual.
Somes says she likes to give young people opportunities in theatre while setting high standards, and West Side Story, with its predominantly youthful cast, provides plenty of scope for that.
Nicola Hall plays Maria, the sister of Bernardo (Jordan Kelly), leader of the Sharks. Maria falls in love with Tony (Lachlan Whan), who started the Jets with his best friend Riff (Zack Drury) but who is starting to look beyond the gang for more in life.
Hall says Maria grows up through her love and its consequences over the two days spanned by the show's action.
And although she has acted before - as Fantine in Les Miserables and Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, among other roles - she is finding the part a stretch even though West Side Story is her favourite show.
''It's a huge role. I usually sing jazz, low dark tones. This is more up there.''
Whan is also finding his role a challenge. ''It's one of the first times I've had solos in a show … and there's some very serious and dramatic acting as Tony.''
While there's plenty of humour, action and romance, he says there's ''a lot of loss in the show'' and he has worked hard with Somes to find the appropriate feelings for his performance.
And for someone whose specialty is dance - he's studied it since he was nine - he doesn't have that much of it to do in the role.
But others do. Lisa Buckley is choreographing the show and playing one of the Jet girlfriends. She's appeared in two previous productions of West Side Story and is a fan of the original Jerome Robbins choreography.
''What I've tried to do is stay true to it as much as possible,'' she says, citing scenes like the dance at the gym where Tony and Maria meet as ''something everyone is familiar with''.
But she's injecting some of her own ideas and is keen to differentiate the dance styles of the gangs.
''The Sharks have clean, swift lines in movements … they move with pride,'' she says.
''The Jets have a relaxed, casual feel, a bit more rough.''
The Jets' leader, Riff, is played by Zack Drury. He and his real-life partner Amy Dunham are on opposite sides in this show: she plays Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend, who looks out for Maria.
Dunham loves playing the ''very feisty, very passionate'' Anita which is something of a departure for her.
''I normally get popped into comic-relief roles,'' she says.
Likewise, Drury says he's enjoying the multi-faceted challenge. ''I've never done a large serious role before. I mostly do a lot of comedy stuff.
''The dancing is at a very high level, it's the most complicated dancing I've done and it's a very hard sing in the sense of timing … It's very, very specific in the way it's sung.''
Musical director John Yoon, who will play piano in the 17-piece band under conductor Geoff Gray, agrees it's a challenging score, the product of a classically trained musician who also worked in musical theatre, angular and with mixed metres and constantly changing rhythms, sometimes in the one bar.
''Everything is full of detail, down to the notes. There are no simple harmonies, they're extremely complicated,'' Yoon says.
For this version of the production, the song Somewhere, usually sung by a single female voice, will be performed as a trio featuring Sarah Darnley-Stuart, Linda Gledhill and Max Gambale.
''We thought it could be a great effect and we had the opportunity to do so because we had the vocal resources,'' Yoon says.
West Side Story is on at the Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre on February 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, 17, 20, 21, 22, 23 and 24 at 8pm, February 16 and 23 at 2pm and February 17 and 24 at 5pm. Tickets $45/$39. Bookings: theq.net.au or 6285 6290.