The Florida State College at Jacksonville High School Summer Musical Theatre Experience is celebrating its 12th anniversary with a presentation of the West Side Story July 21-30 at the Nathan H. Wilson Center for the Arts.
Open to local area high school students, the Summer Musical Theatre Experience (SMTE) pairs young thespians with some of the highest recognized local theatre directors, choreographers and musicians for an immersive stage experience. To audition, students must have completed the 7th grade prior to rehearsal. High school graduates may participate if they have just graduated in the current year.
This summer, more than 70 Jacksonville student performers and technicians will be directed by Eric DiCicco in preparation for West Side Story. Leading the cast is Malik Bilbrew, 17, as Tony and Cassidy Goldman, 18 as Maria, the two young, idealistic lovers caught between warring street gangs, the “American” Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Bilbrew is a rising senior in the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts musical theatre program. Goldman is heading into her freshman year at the University of Florida, majoring in vocal music education.
Revered as one of the most memorable musicals and greatest love stories of all time, West Side Story features the energetic score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Goldman, who was crowned Miss Jacksonville 2017, says she is inspired by the vocal harmonies in “Tonight.” “I love how all of the voices blend and just the beauty of the piece,” says Goldman, who appeared in the 2016 SMTE staging of Cats.
Bilbrew says he learned the choreography for “Cool,” the larger-than-life dance number featured in the first act last fall and it stuck with him. “It echoed in me,” says the veteran stage actor who recently appeared in Ragtime the Musical at Flager College and as one of the Lost Boys in Peter and the Starcatcher at Theatre Jacksonville. “The intensity really pulled me in.”
Themes of struggle and survival in a world filled with hate, violence and prejudice remain relevant today. For the cast, the objective is finding the balance and present the heartfelt story in a thoughtful and entertaining way without losing the intensity of the message.
“The biggest challenge for everyone is really relating the story to the audience and bringing awareness to the problem and the importance of stopping it,” says Bilbrew, who was influenced by his own experiences with gangs. As a young child, his own brother fell victim to the temptations of the gang culture which helped inform his performance.
“It opened me up to the casualties. People die,” he says. “I’m happy that my brother made it out okay and he’s safe now.”
For Goldman, she’s grateful to be a part of such a classic production that continues to share a timely and hopeful message. “I’m really hoping that this show opens people’s eyes and helps them to understand that this type of conflict still exists but there is resolution,” she says. “I’m so excited to be a part of it and I can’t wait for opening night.”