That song? "Gee, Officer Krupke."
Those lyrics? "Gee, Officer Krupke -- KRUP YOU!"
Whoa, potty-mouth. Keep it clean. They're just high-school hoods -- even if they're singing Sondheim words to Bernstein music.
"I thought, 'Can we talk about your mother on drugs?' " says Robert Connor, director of "West Side Story" as staged by students of the Las Vegas Academy at its Lowden Theater.
Could it be: "Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks"? Maybe it's: "My parents treat me rough. With all their marijuana, they won't give me a puff"? Or is it: "My grandpa is a commie, my grandma pushes tea"?
Borrowing another "Krupke" phrase: Gloriosky, naturally they're punks.
"We've gotten pretty good support from our administration, but there is this grass-roots effort to put theater under a microscope from a moral standpoint and challenge our efforts to educate with this material," Connor says. "They had those issues at Green Valley High School (with controversies over 'The Laramie Project' and 'Rent'). Now we're a little paranoid. Who's coming to our shows saying, 'This is inappropriate'?"
Hard to fathom how a show whose references were acceptable at its Broadway debut 53 years ago could rouse moralistic posturing -- who could work up a froth over a gritty "Romeo and Juliet"?
Famously, Shakespeare's classic is "West Side's" inspiration, the ill-fated romance repositioned in the tough slums of 1950s New York: Rom and Julie replaced by Tony and Maria, balconies ceding to fire escapes, and feuding Montagues and Capulets transformed into white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks, scoping their gang turf, flashing their switchblades, rumbling in the playgrounds and spewing racial hatred that dooms the love of the ex-Jets leader-turned-pacifist and his dewy Puerto Rican love.
Leonard Bernstein's score? Stephen Sondheim's lyrics? Jerome Robbins' choreography? Touchstones of musical theater. You know the iconic phrases: He just met a girl named Maria. ... She feels pretty, oh so pretty. ... When they are Jets they are Jets all the way from their first cigarettes to their last dying day.
"As an educator and director, it's paramount for me to introduce young people to the treasures that are the foundations of musical theater, that set the tone and pace for everything that came after it," Connor says. "Bernstein did a wonderful job composing it, but with his genius comes the rigors of playing it. These high school students are excellent, but this is even difficult for professionals."
One scene that could prove sensitive in a high-school production is the assault on Anita, Maria's sister and girlfriend of Shark leader Bernardo, who is set upon by contemptuous Jets in a candy store, setting in motion the tragic climax. Originally on Broadway and in the Oscar-winning 1961 movie, it was portrayed as an implied rape. Subsequent versions have treated the scene more explicitly.
"We have certain limitations based on Clark County School District policies, so we have to be careful," Connor says. "They are definitely taunting her in a sexual way, trying to intimidate her with their masculinity, but does it go beyond the taunting? The way we've done it is just enough to give you the impression."
As one of two student actresses rotating in the role of Anita, Rachel Richards isn't immune to the tensions of that encounter. "Being in the moment of that scene is full of anxiety," Richards says. "To have that many men stand close to you, picking on you, getting physical, it's scary, even as an actor. Before we start the scene, all these boys there are hugging me and asking, 'Are you OK?' "
As revered as "West Side Story" is, one weak spot cited by critics is the character of Tony. Though fleshed out as a moony romantic, the ex-gang leader side of him gets short shrift.
"This is no slight on the book writer (Arthur Laurents), but they didn't develop Tony enough," Connor says. "I've heard of so many productions where Tony is a weaker male, with mannerisms that aren't as masculine. It's hard for an actor to grab onto. Tony's got to be a guy. I think you'll be surprised by (actor) Cody Canyon. He's worked really hard to bring some life to this character."
As has the entire company for the total production, Connor adds -- more than 70 actors, 40 student musicians and 60 crew members. "Young people's skills are not as developed as professionals', but we didn't water it down to accommodate that," he says. "We just started (rehearsing) early and said we're going to work really hard to make this really good."
Gloriosky, they're diligent punks.
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.