Evelyn Keane plays the female lead Maria. She is seen here with fellow cast members Sean Hynes, Rian Hogan and Louise O'Shaughnessy.

The West Side Story cast are growing - on and off stage

It was a busy Easter break for the young cast members of West Side Story, which starts a three night run in Mullingar Arts Centre on Thursday May 9.

Made up of members of the transition year classes in Colaiste Mhuire and Loreto College under the direction of Sean Lynch, the 46 strong cast spent a lot of their recent holidays in the arts centre rehearsing for what will be for most of them their acting debut.

The theatrical newbies' maiden production is one of the most iconic musicals in Broadway history. A retelling of the Shakespearean romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is set in an ethnically diverse working class neighbourhood in New York in the 1950s.

The male lead Tony (played by Rory Sheehan), is a former member of the Jets, a white street gang.

He falls in love with Maria (played by Evelyn Keane) whose brother Bernardo is the leader of the Puerto Rican gang The Sharks, The Jets' despised rival.

As the couple's relationship develops, tensions rise between the two gangs before the dramatic and tragic climax.

Director Sean Lynch says that while the cast is full of novices, they have thrived in rehearsals and everyone associated with the production is looking forward to opening night.

“West Side Story is a big ask for the cast, it's a huge ask.

“They are blessed, the two leads Rory and Evelyn are sublime. To find two so well matched singers in a Transition Year class is rather exceptional. It's going to be a good production, I hope,” he said.

Since the start of the academic year last September the TY students have been attending drama classes in the arts centre each week.

The students were divided into two groups, with the second group busy rehearsing for Shawshank Redemption, which will be staged at the end of May.

Students from this year's TY class in Colaiste Mhuire also competed in this year's Briery Gap All Ireland Transition Year Drama Festival in Cork and the Scoil Dramaíocht Leinster final.

Teacher Edel Holohan says that the skills the students have acquired will stand to them on and off the stage.

“[When they start the classes] they are very shy, very conscious of being around each other, to speak out, sing out. If one won't do something they all won't do it.

“They are a bit like lambs when they start but as time goes on it's amazing to see the difference in them. They are much more confident, much more able to speak up for themselves.

“You can even see them back up in school, their confidence has grown much more. You can see it in the corridors, how they interact with each other and even with their teachers.”

The association between transition year students attending Colaiste Mhuire and Mullingar Arts Centre began almost a decade ago.

Director Lynch says that the association has benefited both parties. This can be seen from the fact that in recent years and number of TY students have joined Mullingar Student Players and featured in its recent production of Chess in the arts centre.

“The project with St Mary's started around ten years ago with a devised piece every year.

“Then it evolved into a play where two years we did One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, then last year we did a great production of A Few Good Men. As TYs have got bigger so has the demands.

"...The students start with dramatic classes and workshops to tease out who is best at what.

“Not everybody can act. I regard acting as a talent; a talent that you can hone. Not everyone can sing either, I certainly can't.

“We are blessed in Mullingar, the town has such good singers. Evelyn is brilliant.

“What you have now - society has changed - you have eight and ten year olds starting to be trained. The talent they have is stunning. I won't say it's getting easier but it is getting far more enjoyable," he said.

Georgina Hourican, the Transition Year co-ordinator at Colaiste Mhuire, says that hundreds of Colaiste Mhuire pupils have benefited from the school's links with the arts centre over the last decade.

She also paid tribute to Mr Lynch and fellow staff members in the arts centre for their committment to the school over the years.

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