It could be a musical itself — this deadline prepping for the Leonard Bernstein Centennial Festival, 10 days of musicals and concerts from Aug. 16 to 25 in the composer's birth city of Lawrence.

A week before the opening, on the stage in Lawrence High School's Performing Art Center, students from Lawrence and seven other cities scramble to transform the largely open space into New York City neighborhoods. 

A thumping jigsaw slices a faux-brick section from plywood. Four students shuffle over the stage with the section — another piece to hang for the city wall. A push broom sweeps sawdust into a pile and burgundy curtains descend from above. 

"West Side Story" here we come. "In the Heights" here we come. "On the Town" here we come.

The Bernstein-composed classic "West Side Story," a modern-day "Romeo and Juliet," is the premier event.

"In the Heights," by Lin-Manuel Miranda, about a Hispanic-American neighborhood not unlike Lawrence, is a companion piece with appeal to younger audiences.

Both musicals have New York City settings, though separated by 40 years.

"On the Town" is a concert of Bernstein music. 

The festival goal is for people from different backgrounds to come together to entertain and cultivate understanding in our fractured times. It is timed to coincide with what would have been Bernstein's 100th birthday on Aug. 25.

"A piece like this is so important for Lawrence schools to be a part of and participate in," said Matt Evangelista, Lawrence High's theater director. "This is real project-based learning with real-world stakes."

Evangelista calls it the most demanding project of his life. He has been up since 5 a.m. on this day — after going to bed at 3 a.m. — and maintains a sleep-deprived, twilight zone calm.

From the stage, his wife calls out questions about the set and rehearsal plans. She holds their baby in her arms. The couple's other young child is exploring the emerging set. 

"West Side Story" leads Tony and Maria break from building mode to chat at the stage's edge.

Tony is played by Aaron Povenmire, 16. He went to Haverhill High last year and is bound for Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick this fall.

Maria is played by Jaidiliz Salazar, 15. She went to Lawrence High last year and is headed for Andover High this fall.

Both feel the weight of their roles.

"It is a heavy responsibility to not only act right and sing right, but to send a message to the audience and make sure you are sending it right," Salazar said.

"In 'West Side Story' racism leads to (fighting) and unrest and Tony is at the epicenter," Povenmire said. "I also feel a lot of responsibility. I want to play him right."

Meanwhile, in the dance studio, choreographers run performers through their steps.

In the music studio, the pit orchestra — comprised of volunteer professionals — plays beat-heavy hip-hop and Latin salsa. It's a rehearsal for "In the Heights." Cast members sing with rhythm and conviction.

Among the lead voices is Ricky Rios, a Lawrence native and recent graduate from Skidmore College in New York, who is playing Usnavi. 

And Sarah Vieira, of New York City where she attended The American Musical Dramatic Academy of Performing Arts. She plays Daniela the hairdresser. 

And Jahmo Chavez, a junior at Greater Lawrence Technical School, playing Benny, an employee at Rosario’s. He'll also be playing Bernardo, leader of the Sharks in "West Side Story."

And Talitha Dantas, a junior at Bedford High School, playing Nina Rosario.

Next comes the first of three dress rehearsals for the Lawrence Cultural Council and Lawrence Public Schools production.

Does Evangelista fear the set and cast and crew might not be ready for the six performances of  "West Side Story," four of "In the Heights" and two "On the Town" concerts?

It's a challenge, and there are always worries and there's much to be done but ... “It’s going to happen, oh, it’s going to happen,” Evangelista said.


COMING SUNDAY: A look at composer and native son Leonard Bernstein's Lawrence connections.



What: Leonard Bernstein Centennial Festival, a Lawrence Cultural Council and Lawrence Public Schools production

When: Through Aug. 25

Where: Lawrence High School’s Performing Arts Center, 70 North Parish Road

How much: $12 general admission, $10 students and seniors

More information:


"West Side Story": Fridays, Aug. 17 and 24; Saturdays, Aug. 18 and 25; and Wednesday, Aug. 22, at 7 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 19, at 2 p.m. 

"In the Heights": Thursdays, Aug. 16 and 23, 7 p.m.; Saturdays, Aug. 18 and 25, 2 p.m.

"On the Town": Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 20 and 21, 7 p.m.; (free)

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