When the lights went down in the performing arts center Friday night for the regional high school’s production of West Side Story, everyone clapped, many hooted, and some younger audience members actually screamed with anticipation. They weren’t disappointed. Walking out of the play, you felt you’d seen something substantial.

All weekend long the high school parking lot was filled for every performance, with barely a seat left in the entire performing arts center.

West Side Story, the 1957 musical based on Romeo and Juliet, is an ambitious show for any cast, let alone a cast of high school students juggling other schoolwork, sports, and college applications alongside their voice lessons and rehearsals.

Lizzie Williamson as Anita and Emily Hewson as Maria. — Mark Alan Lovewell

The play is at times casual and at other times operatic. It deals equally with the awkwardness of being a teenager at a first social dance, wanting to wear a short skirt and not being allowed to, being in love for the first time, and also with the chaos of violence and death. The cast, directed by Brooke Hardman Ditchfield, was stellar from the opening curtain to the lengthy standing ovation at the end.

When Tony and Maria, played by seniors Emily Hewson and Curtis Fisher, first see each other it is from opposite sides of a stage crowded with dancers and movement. The two were almost unnoticeable at first, then they began to walk toward one another, drawing the audience in with each step. By the time they met under the light center stage, the audience was under their spell, which they didn’t let go for the next two hours.

Curtis portrayed Tony as earnest and youthful. Emily created a strong and graceful Maria. In the first act, the delirium of their love was contagious.

Senior Lizzie Williamson triumphed as Anita, Maria’s older best friend, taking on the difficult role with gusto and force. A few adult actors, including Brad Austin as Doc, rounded out the cast.

Don't mess with the Jets.

A simple set was transformed as red and blue lights alternately soaked the stage. With cues from sophomore stage manager Violet Cabot, the backdrop was electric blue, then orange, then pink, often outlining gang members’ silhouettes. Young women twirled under blue light in big, spotted skirts.

The division on stage between indoors and out, between night and day, between reality and fantasy was always murky. Maria’s dress shop appeared in the middle of the street, which then transformed into a basketball gym, which transformed into an alleyway, giving the play a suspended quality that reinforced the search for belonging central to the story. “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us.”

Costume designer Chelsea McCarthy dressed her Sharks in shades of red. Her Jets wore simple blues. The gangs wore an armor of faded denim and converse sneakers. The two leads often wore white.

Choreographer Ken Romero managed the huge cast deftly, taking advantage of their existing movement and mannerisms to arrange pieces that felt original and genuine. During the many extended dance sequences, the stage was crowded and wild one moment, solemn and empty the next as the cast moved through a seemingly endless series of entrances and exits, forming and unforming groups like birds in flight.

Cast and audience were as one in their enthusiasm. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Ms. Hardman Ditchfield along with Scott Barrow choreographed multiple fights, lending them both gravity and beauty. After the first death of the play, an act of choreography rather than music or words, the room was completely silent, the audience breathless.

A 21-piece live community orchestra, under the direction of Abigail Chandler, played Leonard Bernstein’s famously difficult music deftly. They carried the work so well it was easy to forget they were there. The music seemed a matter of course in the magical world these countless people have been working on since last spring to create.

To borrow a line from Maria: “I saw you, and the world went away.”