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For young people dreaming of a career on stage, the chance to star in MusicTheatre4Youth’s Belfast production of West Side Story is a fabulous opportunity. Jane Hardy meets the cast

Watching Holly, Craig and Jemima limbering up in the quiet 18th century interior of Belfast’s May Street Church, you could sense the energy that’s going into the next MusicTheatre4Youth (MT4Uth) production this autumn. It all looks like a scene from Fame, and Holly in particular has the sort of extraordinarily supple legs that make other people wince as she strikes pose after pose.

The show is West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s piece of edgy genius first produced in New York in 1957. And the story of the Jets and the Sharks and love across the racial/cultural divide still has resonance for the 18 to 24-year-olds from all over Northern Ireland who are bringing this slice of American experience to us as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. MusicTheatre4Youth’s operations organiser Erika Reid (26) moved via animation training and theatre work to her current role, and says she’s never been happier: “There’s a great wee buzz in productions. I like co-ordinating the kids and when we represented Ireland with a production of Godspell last year at the International Youth Arts Festival in London, everybody said the Irish kids were the best to work with — and the nicest.”

She indicates the way the organisation finds and channels new talent by talking about one of their newest recruits, Conor Mulhall.

“Conor hadn’t done anything with us before but, at our boot camp in the spring, he showed he clearly had a real flair for drama.”

Now he is one of the group aiming to wow audiences with their interpretation of West Side Story.

MusicTheatre4Youth was founded five years ago by Jenny Cooke and has trained some 12,000 young students in the dramatic arts.

The group is not only skilled at imparting all the theatre techniques needed to propel Northern Ireland’s most talented youngsters onto the stage, it’s very good at attracting sponsorship — no easy feat in these straitened times.

Kay Collins, an accountant at Goldblatt McGuigan, explains why her firm is giving financial and other kinds of support to MusicTheatre4Youth: “We do a lot of sponsorship work and the youth aspect of this charity, as well as its cross community aspect, appealed to us.”

The church will have a stage erected across the front of the nave and the acclaimed choreographer Anthoula Papadakis and musical director Tim Sutton — who have worked for professional groups such as Gothenberg Opera and the National Theatre — will be making good use of the new space and the aisles. Even though May Street Church hosts quite a range of arts events, it probably won’t have witnessed such raw energy and enthusiasm as this team is bringing to one of the 20th century’s greatest musicals.

On the way out, seeing the group chattering their way home, you sensed the fun, the craic, the dedication. The charity’s youth patron is Niamh Perry — and all these youngsters want to follow in her footsteps.

You could almost smell the ambition in the air.

Holly Monson (16) attends Regent House School and lives in Newtownards. She says:

I’ve been dancing since I was two — ballet, tap and modern. My mum’s really supportive and she makes all my costumes.

This is my second year with Music4Youth, although I’ve been in quite a few school productions at Regent House School. I’ve played Tinkerbell in Peter Pan and I even played Audrey in The Little Shop of Horrors. Of course, I’d like to play Maria or Anita — she’s such a fun character.

As well as the Music4Youth training, I go to a private dance tutor in Belfast.

I’d love to work in musical theatre eventually and I think it’s great that somebody like Belfast stage star Rachel Tucker, who supports Music4Youth, is doing so well. I think she’s amazing. The poses we strike look painful to the uninitiated but they aren’t really.

Conor Mulhall (16) attends St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School and lives in Belfast. He says:

I only joined the group in February although I’ve always had an interest in drama. One of my mum’s friends found out about a Music4Youth project and I went along.

I’ve done different roles in the past, dialogues and so on. I haven’t done any singing before so I’ll be finding out if I have a voice.

No one in my family has done anything like this — my dad’s an international transport manager and my mum works in Primark — but there’s a real sense of achievement when you finish learning a role. My friends sometimes tease me but when you explain what you’re doing, they say ‘Well done’.

I’ve read the script of West Side Story and I’ve seen the movie — and can’t wait to get started. You can’t compare the buzz of being onstage to anything else.

Megan McArthur (17) attends Strathearn School and lives in east Belfast. She says:

It’s my first year with Music4- Youth. I decided to take part in the auditions and went along in February. We had to do a two-hour long group warm-up and learn a dance routine — even though I don’t consider myself a dancer. We sang a few songs then had to do solos and a scene.

I had to do the tragic balcony scene featuring Maria, which was tough.

My first show when I was seven was in Les Mis (Les Miserables) at the Odyssey in Belfast. It was a very professional production and they advertised for young performers in the Belfast Telegraph.

I think performing develops you as a person and gives you confidence.

Also, you meet new friends. Our family is full of performers — me, my mother and grandmother are all members of St Agnes’ Choral Society and we’ve just appeared in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Jemima Brown (17) attends Hunterhouse College and is from east Belfast. She says:

I’ve been with the group for five years, and am also part of a stage school in Bangor. I really love musicals and have seen West Side Story. We also studied it for my music A-level at school. I don’t mind which role I get.

The dancing doesn’t bother me as I’ve danced since I was four, doing ballet and other types, like contemporary dance. My boyfriend, Matthew Gordon, is also a member of Music4Youth. We met via the stage school and may be cast together. I’m just looking forward to a good experience. I always enjoy Music4Youth productions.

I’m not sure if I want to go into the business — I’m torn between becoming a primary school teacher or a performer. I teach young children ballet at the Susan Macmillan School of ballet and love it.

Craig McCune (21) is studying dance at Belfast Metropolitan College and lives in Belfast. He says:

My dance teach-er told me to audition for the show and it’s giving me a really

good experience. I’m not really a singer, but I’ve got an ok tenor voice. I try. But I just love dancing with the chorus.

I have seen the show and am looking forward to the opening male dance, the clicking fingers routine.

Dancing can be really tiring — after working on a show, your feet are aching.

The right shoes are important. I guess the Jets will be wearing a version of trainers for the show, while the Sharks are more classy.

Mark Gillon (16) attends De La Salle College and lives in Belfast. He says:

It’s my first year with the group. I signed up because my mate Conor got a leaflet about the show and we didn’t have anything to do. Someone said it was good fun, and it is.

Dancing was difficult at the start but as I play football, I’m pretty fit. I am also starting to get a voice. Although I haven’t seen much theatre, I’ve been to a few pantomimes.

My family and mates think it’s a good thing for me to be involved in. The warm-ups are hard and when you start doing the numbers it’s challenging. But I’d like to go to college and do something like this. It’s a good start.

MT4Youth’s production of West Side Story runs from October 26-29 during the Queen’s Belfast Festival. For tickets, tel: 028 9097 1197

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