by Dennis Dalman
Alex Engelsgjerd of Sartell is starring as “Tony,” one of the two lead roles in a current production of West Side Story at the Paramount Theatre in downtown St. Cloud.
The show is a production of GREAT Theatre.
Engelsgjerd, a freshman at St. John’s University, described his role as a challenging one in a “great show.” He is the son of Mark and Nancy Engelsgjerd.
Two other Sartell students – 11th-graders Jenna Runge and Hannah Tilstra–also have roles as gang members in the musical – Runge as one of the Jets, Tilstra as one of the Sharks.
The female lead, “Maria,” is being performed by Emily Erickson of St. Cloud.
West Side Story, which opened April 28, will run for two more weekends: May 4-6 and May 11-13. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are available by calling the Paramount box office at 259-5463 or by visiting the Great Theater website at www.GreatTheatre.org.
The show, directed by Dennis Whipple, has a cast of 34.
Long considered to be one of the landmarks of American theater, West Side Story opened on Broadway in New York City in 1957 to rapturous acclaim. Based on Shakespeare’s tragic play, “Romeo and Juliet,” West Side Story tells the ill-fated story of a romance between teenagers Tony and Maria in the mean streets of New York City, rife with teen-gang disputes. The musical explores the themes of urban alienation, prejudice, hatred, violence and the redemptive power of love.
The play’s famous musical numbers were written by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The songs include such crowd-pleasers as “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “Maria,” “America,” “One Hand One Heart” and “I Feel Pretty.”
A movie version of the musical opened in 1961, starring Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in the two lead roles. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10 of them, including the Best Picture Oscar and best-supporting honors for Rita Moreno and George Chakiris.
When he was a Sartell student, Engelsgjerd performed in about 20 stage productions. It is a love of the stage that has lasted, inspiring him to major in theatre at SJU. Tony, he said, is the most complex and difficult role he has played and his first role as a romantic lead.
“It’s not just the singing that is difficult, it’s the range of emotions I have to portray,” Engelsgjerd said. “I have to show love, hate, regret – all the emotions. I had a lot of fun developing the character.”
The “fun,” however was tempered by some very hard – at times grueling – work. Rehearsals, after school, went on for hours for many weeks.
“But it was all worth it, because it’s a fantastic show,” he said. “Everyone in it does such a fantastic job. And the audiences have been incredible. They gave us a standing ovation at the opening show on Friday and another standing ovation Sunday.”
Such intense audience response was obvious to Engelsgjerd that the show’s tragedy and heartbreak had moved spectators very deeply.
What strikes Engelsgjerd about West Side Story is how relevant it is, even after nearly 60 years.
“It’s such an iconic musical,” he said. “I love it. I love the way it’s so relevant to today’s problems, the same problems as then. Love, hatred, prejudice, violence. It’s a great play in how it shows how love and acceptance can go a long way in changing people and changing life.”
West Side Story, in Engelsgjerd’s opinion, is a musical everybody should see.