Members of the stage crew work on the set, as...

Members of the stage crew work on the set, as preparations continue for Eastport South Manor High School's production of West Side Story. (March 1, 2012) Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Natalie Vero has taken to the stage in school theater productions every year since ninth grade. Now, the senior at Eastport-South Manor Junior-Senior High School is perfecting her lines and lyrics as a leading player -- Anita in "West Side Story."

"It's my dream role," said Vero, 18, adding that she and other seniors "were waiting forever for our chance to shine."

But it was almost curtains for the spring musical. A district budget crisis meant almost $70,000 was cut from this year's theater program funding. Students and parents, determined that the show must go on, banded together to raise nearly $46,000 so far.

"It means so much to us that the community cares so much," said Shelby Nielsen, 17, who now will get the chance to sing "I Feel Pretty" as Maria in four performances this month.

Parents groups in several districts across Long Island have raised money to restore sports programs cut from districts' 2011-12 budgets. At Eastport-South Manor, many parents said the theater program in the school of 1,850 students -- one that has existed for more than three decades -- was well worth fighting for.

"These kids find their way there for all different reasons," said Barbara Stanco, president of the Eastport South Manor Community for the Arts, a nonprofit created specifically to raise money for the program. "What I have admired is how different they can all be, and how together they create something memorable and special."

The group has held golf outings, yard sales and other fundraisers, and developed a community cookbook with more than 170 recipes to sell at the shows. Members expect the rest of the production's total cost -- more than $50,000 -- will come from ticket sales.

Barbara Stanco, is part of a group of concerned parents...

Barbara Stanco, is part of a group of concerned parents who raised $35,000 so the Eastport South Manor High School production of West Side Story could go on. (March 1, 2012) Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Over the past three years, the district has lost $3.5 million in state aid. Budget cuts meant some middle school sports and other electives have been pared. Those have not been restored, Superintendent Mark A. Nocero said.

The fall drama production was a casualty of the money crunch. Of the two, the musical took priority: It involves the most students -- about 110 in all aspects of theater, from stage crew to performers.

"We really did a lot of fundraising," said Jason Orban, 17, a senior who is playing a leading role. Without a show, "this year wouldn't have been complete," he said.

"West Side Story" will have four performances March 22-25, all in the Eastport-South Manor Theatre at the Manorville high school. One special "Dinner and a Show" event -- an evening performance on March 22 -- is exclusively for senior citizens and is free.

The others are open to the public. Evening performances will be held March 23 and 24 at 7 p.m. and a matinee March 25 at 2 p.m.

Reserved-seat tickets purchased in advance are $10 for adults and $5 for seniors and students; at the door, tickets are $12 for adults and $7 for seniors and students. Tickets can be purchased at the Eastport South Manor Community for the Arts' website, esmca.org.

With the happy ending in the campaign to stage "West Side Story," some people are looking ahead. The district has proposed $40,000 for the theater program in the 2012-13 school year, enough that school officials believe a spring musical could be staged.

But Stanco said the arts group probably will need to raise money again next year. The proposed funding doesn't allow for restoration of the fall drama, she noted.

"It is not enough money," she said.

Eastport-South Manor isn't the only district struggling to keep funding for arts programs.

In the Longwood school district, cutbacks led to elimination of the instrument program for fourth-graders, said John J. Gallagher, the district's director of fine and applied arts and state public relations chairman for the New York State School Music Association. He said he has not heard of many districts statewide that are cutting public performances but would not be surprised if next year, with the 2 percent tax cap kicking in, many will have to take such steps.

"Things like a spring musical, marching band, a fall play -- many school districts may wind up saying goodbye," Gallagher said. "They can't afford the lumber, nails, scripts, licensing. And it's sad. The kids are not going to get this experience."

Taylor Smith, an Eastport-South Manor senior who has the lead role of Maria's lover Tony, said the school's younger students also may have to fight for their turns before the footlights.

"The job the student population did to make sure we would have a show set an incredible example for them to keep the shows going," he said.

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