Rafe McConnell, 18, and Caroline Kellam, 17, have found themselves entwined in a love story marked by racial tension, pressure from friends and family, as well as violence. The pair have taken on the roles of Tony and Maria in the newest production by the Sherman Community Players.
“West Side Story” is the last production of the 70th consecutive season of SCP, ending the season of musicals on an even larger stage than it began.
The Sharks and the Jets will be making their way across Elm Street this weekend to battle it out on the Finley Theater Stage. The production will be showing from Saturday through June 23 at Kidd-Key Auditorium.
The Finley theater seats around 200, but the Sherman Municipal buildings performance stage allows for 1,000 to see the show taking place over the next two weekends.
“I have fallen in love before and I like to get to that place,” McConnell said about how he dove into his character for the show. “And remember how I felt when I first fell in love with someone. I love taking myself into that place.”
“West Side Story” centers around Maria and Tony, two teenagers from rival New York City gangs. Despite the known conflicts, the pair fall in love and just like a 1960s take on Romeo and Juliet, tragedy befalls the Jets and Sharks.
Throughout my life, my parents have been very supportive in everything that I have done,” McConnell said. “So, that is one of the hard things for me in this role. I have never experienced people that are like family pressuring me to do something or be violent or just do something I did not want to do.”
Still, there are several instances of himself that McConnell had to work through with his cast mates for the Friday opening of the show.
“I think with any teenager, when thinking about what you want to do in life, it is often a struggle between what you want to do and what my parents want me to do,” he said. “It is about what will make me more money and what will make me happier. Of course, all of those things are factored into decisions. I personally want to go with the thing that will make me happy because money cannot buy happiness. “
Teenage angst, hormones, and the constant questions about the future are summed up in the song “Somewhere,” McConnell said.
“There is a reoccurring line that says there is a place for us,” he said. “It is really important to know that there is a place for everyone in the world today. No one can get to their own place if we are all divided and there is a lot of conflict. We can only do it if we are together and one and supporting each other.”
The most memorable song for Caroline has a different theme and she said she relates to “I Have a Love” because of how underrated it is among the other “West Side Story” tunes.
“It is really interesting because I have not been through a lot of what my character has been through,” she said. “A lot of what she goes through, I have not been through in life. But, it is a lot of fun to dive into those things. Love and loss: she has been through a lot of emotions. Like falling madly in love as a 17 year old girl is tough. The theme of racial tension is an interesting one to play out, but that is definitely going on in politics right now. It is interesting that things from years ago still relate to us now.”
As a young Latina women, Caroline found herself in the role of Maria partially because of the shared race and partially because of the show written by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents.
“I did not particularly go for a lead before this,” she said. “I did ‘Grease’ last summer and I was Frenchie in that. Frenchie is who appealed to me. Maria has always spoken to me so I was very excited when I learned I would get to play her in this show especially because of my ethnicity. I am partially Latina and the voice type is just like mine. I was really going for Maria with this show.”
During the callbacks, when Caroline sang the highest note Maria takes on in the show in the song “The Tonight Quintet,” Caroline knew the role was meant to be.
“The pianist asked us to sing it and I learned early on that I could do it, but it was very worrisome for me at first. I was thinking, please let this sound come out of my mouth. I had never tried it before. It came out and I was very excited.”
Excited about the opportunity to take the show to the bigger Kidd-Key Auditorium stage, Caroline said she cannot wait for the audience to see the freedom the larger venue gives and how she and her fellow actors will take to the stage.
“My acting teacher often talks about translation and we take things from our lives even if it is at a smaller scale,” she said. “We take that and try to relate it to the emotions of the characters in the show. You have to blow those things up in your mind. During some parts, I just try to feel things as my character because it is sometimes easier to just jump in and feel more connected to her that way.”
McConnell who recently graduated from high school have done 15 shows with SCP over the last eight years. In the fall, he intends to attend Oklahoma City University and study vocal performance.
“I would love to sing at the Dallas Opera or the Metropolitan if possible,” he said. “My favorite musical is probably ‘Les Mes’ and my favorite opera is ‘La Boheme.’”
Caroline hopes to study musical theater at TCU, New York University or the University of Oklahoma.
“I have been doing work with SCP since December of my eighth grade year,” she said. “That was 2015 I believe. This is my first time doing a lead role. Every show I have ever done here has been so appealing to me in so many ways.”
Future Brown is the Associate Managing Editor and Lifestyles and Entertainment Editor for the Herald Democrat. She can be reached at SBrown@HeraldDemocrat.com.