‘West Side Story’ at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School

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Sparkling dance numbers, controversial social issues, music, tragedy, romance, and humor combine to make Our Lady of Good Counsel High School’s production of West Side Story a fun and thought-provoking theatre experience.

Inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Arthur Laurents’ book, Leonard Bernstein’s music, and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics tell a tale of forbidden love between two teenagers whose families are in conflict. In this case, the “families” are actually rival gangs in 1950’s New York City —the Sharks and the Jets. The Sharks are recent immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Jets are from an ethnic, blue-collar neighborhood. As the Jets’ leader, Riff, says, “Without a gang, you’re an orphan.”

Anita (Francesca Rowe) leads the Sharks in 'The Mambo' at the dance at the gym. Photo by Lauren Scott.
Anita (Francesca Rowe) leads the Sharks in ‘The Mambo’ at the dance at the gym. Photo by Lauren Scott.

The young lovers are Tony and Maria. Tony is a Polish-American and Riff’s best friend since early childhood, but he has outgrown the Jets and works as a deliveryman at a candy store. He doesn’t know exactly what the future will bring, but he knows that “Something’s Coming,” and he believes it will be something good. Maria is a young Puerto Rican immigrant who works in a bridal shop and dreams of romantic love while discovering her own sexuality. She  rebels against her brother, Bernardo, who insists she marry a man of the same ethnic background. The cynical and worldly Anita is Bernardo’s fiancée and Maria’s confidante. Tony and Maria meet at a dance and instantly fall in love. The rival gangs plan a “rumble” to determine control of a small piece of territory, and Tony is drawn back into the fray—with tragic results.

In this production, the three lead roles of Tony, Maria, and Anita are dual cast. In the Sunday, March 23, 2014 matinee performance, Tony was played by Neal Davidson, Maria was played by Hailey Giddings, and Anita was played by Francesca Rowe.

Davidson has a clear and strong voice, a very impressive vocal range and amazing dynamics—from barely a whisper to a powerful fortissimo. Giddings has a beautifully sweet soprano voice and tremendous acting talent. Rowe brings her character to life with first-class singing, dancing, comedy, and stage presence.

 Hailey Giddings (Maria) and Neal Davidson (Tony). Photo by
Hailey Giddings (Maria) and Neal Davidson (Tony). Photo by Lauren Scott.

Through Kristina Friedgen’s expert direction and choreography, her students perform at a level that is comparable to professional theatre. The dancing of the entire ensemble—boys and girls, Sharks and Jets alike—runs the gamut from stage combat to blues to Mambo to ballet to Latin to slow-motion to acrobatics, all with confidence and ease. For example, they heat up the theatre with the sizzling “America” and then lower the temperature with the ultra-hip, finger-popping “Cool.” When Davidson sang the haunting “Maria” and he and Giddings combined for “Tonight,” we could actually feel the romance. The sheer beauty of their voices and the romance continued as they imagined what their wedding would be like with the beautiful “One Hand; One Heart.”

It’s difficult to select one favorite production number but the hopeful “Somewhere” is definitely a top candidate. A soloist sings and the ensemble performs a ballet which includes the ghosts of slain gang members. Against a backdrop of grim, gritty reality, the young people sincerely believe that,

There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air wait for us somewhere.
Somewhere, we’ll find a new way of living.
We’ll find a way of forgiving, somewhere.

The Jets’ seemingly effortless comic imitation of “Gee, Officer Krupke” was also a showstopper. The boys sing and dance their way through a litany of social problems—including drugs, prostitution, illness, and unemployment—to try to figure out why they’re juvenile delinquents.

Laurie Bautista and Simonne Vincent’s fabulous lighting design deserves special mention. Background lighting colors, cross-fades, partial blackouts and spotlights are used very effectively throughout the show. For example, in a dream sequence at the dance, all but four couples leave the stage, and then lighting is used to make Tony and Maria seem to be the only couple on the stage. Later, in the balcony scene, Tony and Maria seem to be the only couple in the world. Lighting is used cleverly to indicate the time of day, often when there is no other clue. In the Act One finale, which is a reprise of “Tonight,” Tony, Maria, and Anita sing in three different parts of the same set, and lighting is used to lead the audience to the various locations.

Bernardo (Simeon Spottswood) and Riff (Willy Dowling) face off at the War Council. Photo by Lauren Scott.
Bernardo (Simeon Spottswood) and Riff (Willy Dowling) face off at the War Council. Photo by Lauren Scott.

In their moving production of West Side Story, the talented young performers of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School provide an honest and unsentimental look at social issues like immigration, ethnic stereotyping, youth violence, and the need for belonging, that are just as relevant today as they were in the 1950s. Moreover, they do it without being preachy and with a sense of hope for the future.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

West Side Story plays Wednesday, March 26th at 7:30 PM; Friday, March 28th at 7:30 PM, and Saturday, March 29, 2014 at 2:00 PM and 7:30 PM – at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School performing at the Sandy Spring Friends School Performing Arts Center-16923 Norwood Road, in Sandy Spring, MD.  Tickets can be purchased at the door or online.


Review of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School’s Les Misérables on DCMetroTheaterArts.


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Paul M. Bessel and Barbara Braswell
The most important thing about Paul M. Bessel is that on January 1, 2011, he married the most wonderful woman in the world, who helped him expand his enjoyment of theater. (The first show he remembers was Fiorello! when he was ten, wearing his first suit.) He and his wife now attend as many musicals, history seminars, and concerts as possible, sometimes as many as 4 or 5 a week, enjoying retirement and the joys of finding love late in life, and going on unconventionally romantic dates such as exhibits of mummies and lectures on parliamentary procedure. They live in Leisure World of Maryland and in addition to going to theaters as often as they can they are active together in community and local political organizations. Barbara Braswell grew up in Newport RI, where Jackie Kennedy once bought her an ice cream cone. She has been interested in theatre her whole life. While pursuing a 33-year career with the U.S. Department of Transportation — helping states build highways, including H-3 in Hawaii, where Barbara helped arrange for a shaman to bless the highway — she attended as many shows as possible on her own, with her late mother, and now with her husband. Now retired, she devotes a great deal of time to theatre, community and local political meetings, and having as much fun as possible.


  1. Equally as impressive are the students cast in the dual roles.

    Jon Marc Olivier, as Tony, has a beautiful voice that must be heard – simply outstanding! Molly Boyle as the sweet and innocent Maria equally demonstrates precision acting, and exquisite vocal talents. Vanessa Chapoy is a firecracker and breathes energetic life into the role of Anita. Her singing, acting and dancing talents will amaze you!

    Also worth mention are Simeon Spottswood as Bernardo, and Eric Kressin as Action.

    Kudos to these students!

    • I had the good fortune of seeing both casts and – it is true – they were all wonderful and so very talented. It was a show not many will soon forget.

  2. In 40 years, I’ve never seen a high school production of such energy, sophistication and talented actors across the entire cast. I feel fortunate to have been in town. Wish I’d been able to see both casts. Congratulations to Good Counsel on your extraordinary program.


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