Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra showcases young talent

Hannah Peters | Staff Writer 

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and this year, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is celebrating it the best way they know how: through love songs.

With a love story that is as infamous as love itself, Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” is set to take the stage this weekend at Heinz Hall.

First composed in 1935 as a ballet by Russian conductor Sergei Prokofiev, this production of “Romeo and Juliet” will feature Prokofiev’s orchestration accompanied by two actors playing the star-crossed lovers, performing their scenes in between the musical scores and allowing audience members to enjoy the orchestration and dramaturgy in tandem.

Unusual to Heinz Hall productions, the actors will also be performing from a box that’s typically reserved for seating, giving the 80 plus person orchestra full rein of the stage.

These are not just any actors either. Amerik Cirota, playing Romeo, and Alexis Shepherd with the part of Juliet, are in high school and had just one week to learn their parts.

Cirota and Shepherd, both students of performing arts school Westinghouse Arts Academy, were notified of the opportunity just last Thursday after the original actors from CMU dropped out of the performance.

“They have less than a week to learn all the material [and] to perform it at a professional level with the prestigious symphony orchestra so it’s kind of a 42nd street experience for the kids. They are just getting discovered in this moment,” said Westinghouse Operations Specialist & Production Manager Alex Boyd.

Both Cirota and Shepherd maintain an impressive musical resume, being a part of award-winning productions like Westinghouse’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Cirota, who first made his musical theater debut in the summer of 2022, was nominated for best actor for the Gene Kelly Award for Excellence in High School Musical Theater for his role as Joseph in the production.

Meanwhile, Shepherd, who is a student at both the Pittsburgh CLO’s Academy of Musical Theatre and Westinghouse Arts Academy, has been a part of musical theater since the 4th grade and has performed with Cirota a number of times.

“It’s been such an amazing experience being able to work with such an incredible and talented human being. Watching him grow ever since Joseph, and even now it’s been such a true pleasure to watch,” Shepherd said.

It’s clear that the pair share a deep respect for one another as Cirota had equally encouraging thoughts about his counterpart.

“It’s incredible how far every person comes in the time that you spend with them,” Cirota said. “She has definitely done such an incredible job as a member of the community at Westinghouse and as a performer. It is such a pleasure being able to work with her on any project.”

Performing Arts Department Chair and Head of the Musical Theatre Program at Westinghouse, Nick Lenz, also spoke highly of the two students, claiming that they are more than up to the challenge of a one-week turnaround performance.

“Not only are they emergency put-ins for this, but of all things to do Shakespeare – these two students have been absolute professionals,” Lenz said.

The young perspective these actors bring to the stage also lends to the original story by Shakespeare who cast Romeo as 16 years old and Juliet 13 years old. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is also doing their part in bringing this story to life by including several Romeo and Juliet themed enhancements to the show.

In the Grand Lobby, audience members can enjoy Shakespeare-inspired props, costumes and scripts and will have the chance to pledge their allegiance to House Montague or House Capulet. Themed cocktails will be available and on the Regency Level, Point Park University’s theater department will provide stage combat and sword-fighting demos.

Premiering on Friday, Feb. 9, the Romeo and Juliet production will have three performances, lasting until Sunday, Feb. 11. Tickets range from $25 to $109 and can be purchased via the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra website.

With music full of drama and rich with emotion, the production in store will no doubt be an experience of a lifetime, not only for the audience but for those who are telling the story as well.

“It’s been a fun experience being able to interpret such a well renowned piece of literature and theater into a perspective for the symphony,” Cirota said.

“It’s been such a pleasure and I’m truly grateful to be part of this experience,” Shepherd said. “I’m so excited.”