Nikes and Reeboks squeaked along the black stage as high school boys tossed their girl cast-mates in choreographed fashion.
“Make it slow and pretty—ballet-like,” Heritage High School theater teacher and director Montana Brown instructed, her head and shoulders just visible over the edge of the stage. “Let the energy build.”
The boys, a few of whom wore basketball jerseys and Heritage Soccer sweatshirts, jumped and clicked their heels, then split to separate ends of the stage and snapped their fingers in the signature West Side Story style.
The Broadway version of West Side Story is not an easy production for a high school theater program to pull off. It calls for a cast of almost 50—the majority of whom are boys—who can sing and dance and act with an energy that carries the audience through an intense storyline.
But Heritage High School seems to have what it takes.
Heritage’s drama department has become a dynamic movement within the 1,200-student high school, drawing both self-professed jocks and theater nerds to share the spotlight.
“Remember, you’re not talking in a library. Project!” was the command they heard at their most recent rehearsal.
That’s the big voice of the not-so-big woman behind the reinvented theater program. At 5-foot-5 and 25 years old, Brown could be mistaken for a student. She directs barefoot and, as she critiques each cast member’s performance, she throws her arms up both in frustration and in hopes her passion will be contagious.
“I want them to go all out,” she said. “We have a really strong thing going right now.”
That “thing” she refers to seemed to spark about three years ago when she was hired right out of graduate school by former Heritage principal Margaret Huckabee to mend a program that just barely had enough students to justify four theater classes.
Stepping into a role most her age would shy away from, Brown saw it as an opportunity to build something great. “Because I inherited a program with a lot of room to grow, I felt like so much was possible,” she said, “and I thought, you know what, I can’t go wrong.”
She applied that gutsy temperament to her script selections from the get-go, choosing high-energy musical productions that require large casts, such as Oklahoma! and Neil Simon’s Rumors. Last year, Brown made Heritage the first high school in Virginia and one of the first in the nation to win the rights to perform Legally Blonde—The Musical. The performance earned the program eight award nominations and best supporting actress at the prestigious Cappies competition last summer. Under Brown’s leadership, Heritage productions also have placed at Virginia High School League competitions and the Virginia Theatre Association Festival.
The theater program will be the first in Loudoun County to put on West Side Story, which shows April 18-20.
Heritage Principal Jeff Adam said it’s Brown’s passion paired with her high expectations that’s breathed new life into theater at the school. “The quality of what the kids are producing is just amazing, and it really is driving kids who wouldn’t traditionally be involved in theater to enroll.”
Not only has Brown tripled enrollment in the school’s four theater courses to a maxed-out 160 students this semester, she’s also garnered enough attention for her cause to put on 70-cast member productions. The interest has multiplied with each production, from 60 students auditioning for Oklahoma! and 75 for Legally Blonde—The Musical to more than 100 auditioning for West Side Story.
The cast of West Side Story illustrates Brown’s mission to get students from every social group at Heritage involved. More guys than girls auditioned, and dozens rearranged their sports schedules—a couple even quit teams—to be a part of the musical.
“I just wanted to take a leap of faith and explore something totally new,” said Paul Conteh, a three-sport athlete who shows up to afternoon rehearsals in his basketball garb to play the role of Chino.
Jon Walthour, who in the fall performs under the spotlights of the Heritage football stadium as a wide receiver, landed one of the male leads, Bernardo. Still, he admits just a year ago he considered drama “stupid.”
“My friends are always asking me ‘why are you doing this?’” Jon, dressed in a VCU basketball jersey and Nike high-tops, said. “But, it’s really been fun.”
Heritage senior Henrique Ludwig is an avid soccer player, but he’s quickly becoming known as the one to watch on stage. He enrolled in drama class because he had to take an elective, but six months after a friend jokingly wrote his name on an audition form, he won the lead in Neil Simons’ Rumors in November and now in West Side Story as Riff.
“I never thought I would do anything like this, but here I am,” the 17-year-old said, adding that he’s recruited several of his soccer teammates to audition.
The students credit Brown’s ability to sell theater as fun, and even cool, for their reason to join.
“She has spunk, and it gets everyone excited about it,” Heritage junior Maria Regina said. She plays Maria—the same role Brown played in her high school production of West Side Story. “I think she wants the theater program to take over the school.”
But Brown is quick to deflect any credit to a national movement that’s painting musical theater as hip. She points to the popularity of the show “Glee,” to Hollywood’s embrace of adapting musicals for the big screen, such as Chicago, Les Miserables and American Idiot, an ode to punk rock band Green Day’s seventh album by the same name.
“They’re making musical theater more cool and more accessible to the broader public,” Brown said. “There is still a stigma around drama and theater kids, but that is changing at Heritage…It isn’t a bunch of drama nerds. This is the most normal group of kids, and I’m proud of that.”
She also acknowledges the help of John Wells, who’s run an award-winning theater program across town at Loudoun County High School for 30 years. County’s trophy case is crowded with several awards, including a second-place win for Invisible Man at the State Theatre Festival.
But Wells may have fostered a cross-town rivalry.
Brown’s goal is to keep up the program’s momentum to get more students from all corners of the school involved.
“A lot of theater programs are very exclusive to students in the program, but I really want to appeal to the general masses in the school,” she said. “My biggest goal is for at least every student to be aware of theater and appreciate its art form, and to know they can be a part of what we’re doing.”