Challenging music and choreography fill Ashland High School's interpretation of the classic 1957 musical drama "West Side Story," opening Thursday, March 8, in the Mountain Stage Theatre.

Challenging music and choreography fill Ashland High School's interpretation of the classic 1957 musical drama "West Side Story," opening Thursday, March 8, in the Mountain Stage Theatre.

Suzanne Seiber and Christine Williams direct. The two previously collaborated on AHS' "Grease" and "Little Shop of Horrors."

"The music and dance is an athletic, down-in-the-ground jazz style," Seiber says.

Set in gang-plagued 1950s New York, "West Side Story" explores themes of alienation, immigration and poverty through the feuding Sharks and Jets — racially segregated youth gangs on Manhattan's West Side.

Tony (Noah Werthaiser), a white Jet, meets Maria (Amelia Mejia), the sister of a Puerto Rican Shark, at a neighborhood dance. The two pursue a forbidden romance despite an escalating gang war and Maria's betrothal to Chino (Bronson Samel-Garloff), a prominent Shark. During this clandestine courtship, the Sharks and Jets prepare for a violent "rumble" to settle a territorial dispute.

Fight choreography by Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Jonathan Toppo makes the threat of violence palpable.

"It's truly frightening," Seiber says. "We couldn't believe what he was having these kids do."

"We had the fight rehearsals early on because we knew the complexity of them," Williams says. "The students needed to really invest in the danger."

Tony and Maria's mutual attraction leads the two to grow disillusioned with the struggle surrounding them, and Tony promises to end the violence.

Instead, the rumble takes the lives of Jet leader, Riff, and Maria's brother, Bernardo, before the youths are driven away by a police siren.

The deadly incident prompts the lovers to plan their escape from the city, but the jealous and grief-stricken Chino pursues Tony with murderous intent.

The set, designed by Doug Ham, is built from scaffolding and chain-link fencing with different levels for performance, combined with a broad, open area to facilitate group dance numbers.

The young company of 35 actors started rehearsing in January and quickly adapted to the difficult material.

"I'm impressed by their sensitivity to the giant themes in this play," says Betsy Bishop, producer and drama teacher at AHS. "Even though we live in such a peaceful community, they're very aware of the violence and volatility in the world."

Williams recalls working with Werthaiser on his first solo number, "Something's Coming."

"He spoke the lines as if they were a monologue," Williams says. "Watching that penny drop for him — his whole character emerged from that rehearsal. I really love seeing that moment of discovery."

"West Side Story" runs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, March 8-10, and Wednesday through Saturday, March 14-17, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 11, and Saturday, March 17. AHS is at 201 S. Mountain Ave.

Tickets cost $22 for reserved seating, $17 for general seating and $12 for seniors 65 and older and students 18 and younger. Reserved seating is available at www.showtix4u.com. Tickets for general seating are available at Paddington Station, Tree House Books and Music Coop in Ashland or at www.showtix4u.com. Call 541-482-8771 for information; call 541-840-6410 for group ticket sales.