A classic return to the stage: Waukon High School’s weekend performance of “West Side Story” benefits from experience and passion of all involved

Preparing for the performance ... Waukon High School students rehearse one of the scenes from the musical production West Side Story they performed this past weekend in the Waukon High School auditorium. In addition to the directive guidance of the Waukon High School Musical Theatre Department staff, students also benefited from the experience and passion a number of local theater enthusiasts have with the production. Photo submitted by Sarah Bieber.

by Julie Berg-Raymond

Everyone involved with this project knew it was going to be a big deal.

Not only is the musical, West Side Story, one of the most enduringly beloved in American theatre - with almost every song from the score now considered a standard; but this weekend’s past performance of that timeless classic at Waukon High School was also the first live musical theatre production in the local area since the COVID-19 pandemic had put the arts, like everything else, into lock-down last year.

With COVID-related precautions in place for limited-capacity attendees, more than 40 cast, crew and band members from the Waukon High School Musical Theatre Department presented three performances of West Side Story this past weekend, April 16-18. The production was directed by Waukon High School Vocal Music Director Sarah Bieber, with Waukon High School English teacher Louise Wild serving as assistant director. Jo Ann Sherman, Waukon High School Band Director and Philip Sehmann Excellence in Teaching Award-winner, was the music director.

Waukon High School 1999 graduate Sarah Hagen volunteered as acting and rehearsal coach for her alma mater’s production. Adam Hooten, also volunteering his time, handled the setting and teaching of choreography - originally created by one of the most influential choreographers in musical theatre history, five-time Tony Award-winner Jerome Robbins.

Consulting, also as a volunteer, on the project was long-time actor, dancer, producer and director, Katie O’Regan of Waukon. O’Regan is founder and artistic director of Sacred Noise Society, Inc. - dedicated, she says, to “offering opportunities to diverse artists and educators for inter-disciplinary collaboration in art” and to helping “foster the creative process within individuals and groups among the young and the old alike.” She also is founder of the Spring Grove International Film Festival, which premiered last year and was this year re-named the Spring Grove-Caledonia Film Festival. (See sacrednoisesociety.org for more information).

West Side Story was written by Arthur Laurents. Inspired by William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, the musical explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. The score was composed by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The musical won two Tony Awards in 1958 - for choreography and scenic design; it then ran for 732 performances on Broadway. The 1961 movie version, co-directed and choreographed by Robbins, won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Bieber says she attended West Side Story, for the first time, as a child - when Waukon High School performed it in the late ‘90s. “I remember sitting in the auditorium and listening to the music as I played on the floor between the seats,” she recalls in the “director’s note” that appears in the production’s playbill.

“I remember how the music made me feel and got goosebumps during certain parts of the songs. I fell in love with the music and the story. When a few of my students expressed their own love of West Side Story, it got me thinking maybe we could do this.”

A year ago, Bieber learned that Adam Hooten, owner of Teddy’s Auto Sales in Waukon, had already choreographed and performed in West Side Story. “Knowing I had a choreographer who could teach the type of dancing required for West Side Story and ballet-style dance, I decided to do the show,” she says.

With the production starting to come together, Bieber turned her attention to lighting. Waukon High School has a new, state-of-the art lighting system in its auditorium; but not feeling comfortable yet in her knowledge of it, Bieber reached out to Hooten - who then connected her with O’Regan, who had by then directed and produced more than 75 staged productions in communities across the country and on stages from The Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, WI to the off-Broadway St. Marks Theater.

O’Regan happily offered what help she could, she says. “Sarah said she’d never done lighting like this and heard I might be able to help her. I said yes, because I like her and because we women need to support women in the arts. Sarah is so smart - she asked about anything she may not know about.”

O’Regan had another reason for being happy to consult on the project - her own, lifelong love affair with West Side Story. In fact, her first-ever conversation with Hooten involved that deep affection. In August of last year, when she was organizing the parade for the first annual Spring Grove International Film Festival - which would feature as grand marshal the festival’s special guest, multiple Emmy award-winning actor Ed Asner - O’Regan stopped into Teddy’s Auto Sales to see if he wanted to include one of his classic cars in the parade.

As they talked, O’Regan recalls, “Adam said, ‘We’re doing West Side Story in the spring, at Waukon High School.’ And I said, ‘You’re kidding me - I was Maria when I was a senior in high school at Turkey Valley, in 1982.” It was her performance in that role, under the direction and guidance of David Anderson - an award-winning and much-loved music teacher of 40 years at Turkey Valley - that earned her a music scholarship to college and set her on the course of her career in theatre.

“David Anderson ran five choirs at a time, did massive musicals every year, and then in the summer he created summer stock theater that he would act in sometimes,” O’Regan recalls of her former teacher. “He was a brilliant ‘Tevye’ from Fiddler on The Roof. He set a high bar for me, a very young 13-year-old girl, as my vocal coach. He let me choreograph the high school swing choir from when I was a sophomore, on. He is the reason I am a theater director and actress; so there is no small power in a brilliant music teacher.”

Through the years, O’Regan’s affection for West Side Story would take on more poignant  dimensions. Her late, beloved mother, Leona, who was born September 26 - the same date (but different year) that West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957 - had been in the audience, of course, cheering her daughter on as “Maria” when she was a high school senior. She also was in the audience when, as a 30 year-old, O’Regan set the choreography for the musical’s production in Door County, WI; and she was with her in 2014 when, in a theater on the Upper West Side of New York City close to where the movie version had been filmed, they both heard Rita Moreno talk about acting in that movie.

And they were also together when, in 2008, Laurents - author of West Side Story - directed a new staging of the musical, noted for having introduced “the unprecedented element of selectively weaving Spanish throughout both the book and songs” (playbill.com). On that occasion, O’Regan was able to meet the playwright, himself, when she was given a backstage pass by her late friend, multiple Tony award-winning lighting designer of “Hamilton” and a host of other productions, Howell Binkley, who died in July 2020.

“My mother was a classic, just like ‘West Side Story’ will always be,” O’Regan says. “She was always with me, and she still is - even though she is with God, now. She was with us this past weekend when we were watching the kids, too.”

“There are challenges in every musical production,” Bieber says. “But my assistant director, Mrs. (Louise) Wild, and I do not dwell on them. Every challenge is a learning experience for us as directors and for the cast. We stay flexible, calm and kind - especially during this time of COVID. This show is about the kids and what opportunities I can provide for my students to help them learn and grow musically, while teaching them life lessons along the way.”

Senior Violet Holthaus played “Anita” in the production. “I loved being a part of this year’s musical,” she says. “I enjoy the music, the choreography, the characters, and definitely the cast. I’ve had a lot of fun the past few months preparing for the show.”

For sophomore Alaina Gebel, who played “Graziella,” “being part of West Side Story was such an amazing experience - to connect with new people, and to gain a family. This musical will always be current with whatever challenges we face, and it has become a huge part of my life.”
Ryan VanderVelden, a senior, played “Bernardo” and says he was “incredibly humbled by this opportunity,” and “glad to be a part of this production.” He is starting to get involved in the theater department at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.

O’Regan credits Bieber for “doing great work for the kids. I am proud of her for taking on this musical and giving it her all. And I was also really impressed with the music director, Jo Ann Sherman. What we want is to support the arts in Waukon and the surrounding area. And the arts start with kids - because kids who get exposed to the arts grow up to be adults who had that experience and continue the legacy. I hope every student will keep up the powerful ball of fire they started in the theater department in Waukon. I can’t wait to see what they do next year.”

Cast members for this year’s Waukon High School production of West Side Story included Ryan VanderVelden, Ethan Hooten, Isaac Ericson, Annie Ellingson, Molly Peake, Sarah Stock, Reagan Lubahn, Eireann Goettel, Abby Wiemerslage, Chase Boydston, Philip Clocksin, Gabe Goettel, Annika Headington, Jonathan Marti, Alaina Gebel, Lucia Aldrich, Caleb Perkins, Madelyn Helgerson, Violet Holthaus, Sofia Acosta, Olivia Dougherty, Keira Miller, Elliot Kooiker and Jackie Maruna.