Body, Heart and Soul: Kahilu Youth Troupe in West Side Story

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“Gee, Officer Krupke,” the Jets sing, repeating the messages they get from adults, “We’re no earthly good/Like the best of us is no damn good!”  Their attitude is, “You call us hoodlum?  OK, we’ll give you what you expect of us and then some!”

The Kahilu Youth Troupe’s performance of West Side Story shows the opposite is also true:  call young people talented, call them capable, and they’ll show you talent in spades and capable of anything you put in front of them.  As Beth Dunnington, Director of the Troupe said in her opening remarks, when they bought the right to the original movie choreography by Jerome Robbins, they thought they would have to simplify some of the dance moves. Well, they didn’t!  It was thrilling for the three sold-out performance-goers to witness the results of the incredibly hard-working cast, mostly between the ages of 13 and 20 give their all:  body, heart, and soul.

Composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, is one of our most beloved musicals. It’s a documentation of the turf battles between poor whites and newly arrived Puerto Ricans in New York City’s blighted west side neighborhoods in the 1950’s, a love story of two young people who try to transcend those differences, and a social commentary on the attitude of the adults who interact with the young people in their neighborhood.

Grace Todd and Nicholas Haas

The two main characters, Tony and Maria, were stunningly performed by Nicholas Haas and Grace Todd.  We remember Nicholas from his starring role in Spring Awakening last year, and he was just as impressive as Tony, with his clear articulation even when singing softly, and his ability to soar powerfully into a higher register. His portrayal of emotional states ranging from euphoria to despair were always convincing…  chicken skin!   Fifteen year old Grace is about the same age as Juliet Capulet was when she fell in love with Romeo, and maybe the same age as Maria. She was a perfect embodiment of youthful innocence, surprise at her own budding beauty, desire for the extraordinary, and abrupt confrontation with a horrifying reality. Her pure soprano hit the high notes without effort; it will be wonderful to see her again and again as she gains full control of her voice.

The dancing, under the direction of Angel Prince, encompassed a number of styles, from lyrical ballet to exuberant jazz.  Almost all were in ensemble, either just the Jets, or both gangs, most also including the girlfriends.  The footwork was fast and fancy, there were leaps and lifts, and whether as a group or in couples they stayed in step.  The dancing is as important as the singing in this musical, providing another form of expression for the tensions between the groups.  Jackie Gessert, one of the few music theater professionals in the cast, stood out with her resonant and emotional voice, her transmission of pure joy with her giant smile and loose limbed Latin dance chops, and stellar acting especially in the scene in the bar where she is attacked by the white gang members.  While the story is a tragedy, there is comedy as well:  Jackie as Anita was marvelous in “America,” and the Jets performed “Gee Officer Krupke” with hammed up gusto.

The Kahilu has got the sound system down, so that the wonderful orchestra never overshadowed the singers.  The set was designed to bring us back to the movie; Maria stands on a movable balcony with the spotlight like a moon shining on her, the giant wire fence pulled across the front turned the stage into the asphalt under the highway where the rumble takes place. Every element was executed without flaw.

Our island is so fortunate to have adults who believe that even the sky is not the limit for our young folks, principal among them being Beth Dunnington who founded and has directed the Kahilu Youth Troupe for the past decade. Our hats are off to the parents who drove their children to the many dance and voice lessons and performance rehearsals.  But most of all, the young performers themselves deserve our highest praise for their dedication and had work which made this a truly memorable performance.

Unfortunately, the petty rivalries and hate mongering between the testosterone driven gangs of the west side are not just history and not just local. Today, adults who should know better are still fostering fear and hatred of “the other.” “Some day, somewhere, we’ll find a new way of living.  We’ll find a way of forgiving.”  May that be soon, may we make peace around the world: the youth of today are the key to a better tomorrow.


Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.

Photos: Steve Roby

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