Plantation, Fla., Nov. 25, 2008 -- It was showtime at South Plantation High School. Backstage, students squeezed into costumes, dabbed one another with makeup and warmed up their voices.
But this was no ordinary high school musical.
South Plantation's production of the Broadway musical 'West Side Story" had a special twist. The school is Broward County's main high school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, so when auditions for the production were held in August, 120 students turned out for 50 coveted spots. Among them, a handful of deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
Drama teacher Jason Zembuch had done musicals with singers performing American Sign Language before, but he took a very different approach for "West Side Story."
"What's inherent in the script is that we have a clash of two cultures," Zembuch said. "The original production is a clash between the Puerto Ricans and the Americans. In this production, we have a clash of not only the Puerto Ricans and the Americans but also the deaf and the hearing."
Zembuch adapted the story: The Jets are hearing and most of the Sharks are deaf, including Maria. Initially, the love struck couple -- Maria and Tony -- can't communicate until Tony learns to sign.
There are actually two Maria's: the lead played by Giovanna Vazquez, 16, who is deaf, and her voice, played by Kellie Smith, 16.
Both appeared onstage at the same time in the same costumes. Zembuch artfully weaved the two Marias together with elaborate choreography. During the famous balcony scene, Tony visits Maria at her home and the two, seemingly interconnected Marias appear onstage; Giovanna in the balcony signing her words as Kellie looks on from the darkness below singing the familiar song.
"I want the audience to think that we are one person," said Giovanna, speaking through a sign language interpreter.
Giovanna is a high school junior who played the deaf Maria. "Because the two of us, as you see, we try to move the same," she said of the performance, which ended Sunday.
Kellie, a junior who sang and spoke Maria's lines, said, "I feel the same way. I feel like she is the actual Maria that everyone can see, but I'm like a facet of her personality. I'm there to support her, and I'm there to help her, and I'm just an inner-dimension of herself."
It was an ambitious interpretation, but it was remarkably effective.
Students Weave Signs Into Choreography
Giovanna performed without her hearing aid because the orchestra's music was too loud. The only sound she made during the production was her scream when her love, Tony, dies.
And deafness became part of the drama. Maria's brother Bernardo was played by Frank Gonzalez, 18, a senior who can hear. But drama teacher Zembuch thought it would work better dramatically if Bernardo were deaf, like his sister. So Gonzalez learned to sign his part while another Shark spoke his lines for him.
In one early scene, Rif, a Jet, and Bernardo, a Shark, were arguing. Rif grabbed Bernardo's hand, stopping him from signing and leaving the character voiceless.
"Now that he's grabbed my hand," Gonzalez said. "He's basically put a hand over my mouth and not let me talk. He's basically cut off my communication. In return, after I shake him off, I tell my interpreter not to say anything. And I sign something myself."
It became a battle of communication.
The entire production was signed for deaf audience members but not in a conventional way. Hearing students, who acted as sign language interpreters, became part of the elaborate choreography. They had to learn their signing parts.
It was clear this production took enormous time and dedication. But is also took a lot of money: $43,000. None of it came from the school board, the county or the state, so the students had to raise every penny of it.
"When presented with an obstacle, you have two choices," Zembuch said. "You either allow it to stop you or you find a way around it and we at South [Plantation High] chose to not let it stop us. We try to teach our kids every single day you're going to hit many different road blocks, you're going to hit many different situations in which you're being told you can't accomplish things."
With candy sales, car washes, program sponsors and ticket sales, the money was raised. The cast -- hearing and deaf -- bonded.
"It's exposed me to open my mind more to the fact that everyone is different and you can't judge someone because they're deaf," Gonzalez said. "Because of this program, after high school, I'm planning to become an interpreter for sign language because I feel passionate about the language."
Zembuch said, "It's an examination of cultural differences between nationalities and ethnicities already. We just began to further explore cultural differences between the deaf and hard-of-hearing community and the hearing community."
By aiming high, this ambitious production found a way to add new meaning to a familiar, old story.