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It's the All-American Jets versus the Puerto Rican Sharks during Detroit Lakes High School's production of West Side Story. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

Detroit Lakes students ready for 'West Side Story'

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When it came time to choreograph the Detroit Lakes Public Schools' "West Side Story," director Kathy Larson said the talent was within the Detroit Lakes kids, but they searched outside the school for the position so as to not overload their cast. That's where they found Alyssa Mayfield, a senior at Frazee High School.

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Yes, she had the DVD from the school production 12 years ago and the original show, but, Larson said, "quite honestly, she's created the choreography for this show. She's a gifted dancer and an exceptional teacher."

It started when assistant director Mark Everson talked to Ronita Hackel, who owns Center Stage Dance, where Mayfield dances. Hackel agreed Mayfield would be good for the project, and Everson called and asked Mayfield if she was interested. After a couple days of thought, she agreed to it.

"First I had to see if I had time to do it," she said. "I really, really, really did want to do this."

With all her other obligations, she wanted to make sure she could give it 100 percent -- which meant a lot of late nights.

Mayfield said she watched the DVD a few times to get a feel for the show and then "let the ideas flow. I listened to the music and prayed that the ideas would work," she said with a laugh.

Not being able to put an exact number on the amount of time she put into the choreography, Mayfield said working with the Detroit Lakes students was exceptional.

"Over half of them hadn't taken dance, so it was definitely a challenge, but everyone was committed until they got it."

While she has choreographed her own routines and helped with teaching classes at Center Stage, this was her first production and major project where it fell on her shoulders. But, she said she "most definitely" would do it again.

"You can't just put dance moves together. It has to tell the story," Everson said.

That's something Mayfield isn't having a problem with it seems.

"She is so gracious," Larson said of Mayfield.

"And she has a work ethic that just doesn't quit," Everson added.

"It's nice for the community to share those talents," Everson said.

It's not just dance either. There are the fight scenes as well.

"You can't fake it all," Everson said of the passion that needs to be shown.

"Our girls really challenged our guys to step up."

"They are athletes, those dancers," Larson agreed.

"They put in hours and hours and hours to try and get it right," Everson said.

Now, down to the story. It's 1959, and it's the Jets versus the Sharks, Upper West Side Manhattan. Tony has left the Jets gang, those who think they are "true" Americans, to find bigger and better things for himself.

Maria, the sister of the rival group's leader, Bernardo -- the first generation Puerto Rico immigrant Sharks -- of course falls in love with Tony.

The writings are based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."

Taking place in about a day and a half time span, the play dives into racism, family, cultural differences, death, love.

"They were essentially ahead of their time; they don't see race, color, ethnic," Larson said.

Everson said one of the unique and difficult aspects is that this is one of the few plays the high school students have put on that has characters of about the same age as the actors. Those characters are dealing with many issues these teens haven't faced, like a teen killing another teen, racism, love and death.

The challenge for these Minnesota Nice teens is to find that pent up rage and hatred to play the roles of their gang members.

"Getting the kids to go there is a big leap," Larson said.

"One of the biggest challenges, we keep telling the gangs to be tougher," Everson added with a laugh.

Larson points out that one of the cool things about this play is "the area in which this took place is right by where Lincoln Center is. We've sung there before," she said.

Others involved in the play include Carol Nustad, production manager; Paul Heisler, accompanist; Karen Bimberg, OrchExtra; Kari Williams, Madalyn Sukke and Michelle Norby, costumes; Ray Windloss, lights; Mike Williams, Chris Heyer and Greg Mueller, technicians; Pat Voght and Chris Carr, sound technicians, and Hannah Bode, production assistant.

"West Side Story" opens Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m. (due to the football team winning Tuesday night's game and advancing to the section 8 4A quarter finals game on Saturday night, which was the original opening date.) A matinee will be held Nov. 1 at 3 p.m., and other production dates include Nov. 5-7 at 7:30 p.m. All performances are in the George Simson Auditorium in the Detroit Lakes Middle School. Tickets are available at Central Market and are $8 for adults and $6 for students.

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