Summer school takes on big story in 'Les MisÚrables'
JANESVILLE-Good and evil, rebellion and love, injustice and truth. The Janesville School District is taking on its most difficult summer musical ever with "Les MisÚrables."
And that just describes the complex storyline.
Mix in a large cast, gun props that shoot blanks and the fact that the entire production is sung, and it's clear that this musical will stretch the summer school program's limits.
"Some of these principal roles are very demanding vocally, so we have to take great care how we work with the students," said Brian Knutson, who is sharing musical director duties with his wife, Jan Knutson.
"Les MisÚrables" will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, July 18-20, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 21, at Parker High School.
With 50-plus students, it is the largest cast of any summer school musical. Any high school student is allowed to audition, and students from 10 different high schools made the cut, some coming from as far as Verona.
Director Jim Tropp said the biggest challenge is coordinating different schedules and making sure no one gets lost in the crowd.
"One of the hardest parts when you have a big cast is spending that quality time with each individual actor," Tropp said. "My goal every time I direct a high school show is that every cast member has their own moment and they get the attention. Then it becomes their show, and it becomes part of them; they don't just fall away into the cracks."
Falling into the cracks doesn't seem to be an issue for these stu-
seem to be an issue with these students. Each person has taken great pride in the show since the auditions, Jan Knutson said.
"Even if it was just one line, we had 30 students lined up," she said. "They didn't come and not know the rhythm or how it fit in that piece. They were there, really prepared and giving it their all, which was fabulous and made us really able to pass roles around."
The actors said they have drawn inspiration from many places.
Haley Rosenthal from Beloit Turner High School said she watched the 2012 movie adaptation and clips from different productions to find the right way to portray her character, Eponine.
Winter White, who plays young Cosette, is only 9 years old. She's excited to have her second lead role, although it hasn't been an easy job.
"Because of who Cosette is, the boss of her is always pushing her around, literally, so it's kind of rough," White said. "That's probably the hardest part, trying to avoid getting hurt."
This production of "Les MisÚrables" is the student version, which Tropp said has been out for a few years. He and other summer school staffers were reluctant to take it on, but when they saw the movie was coming out, they knew people would want to see it live and students would want to audition.
The student version of "Les MisÚrables" has some cuts from the original production, making it more age appropriate, Tropp said.
"It's hard to notice the changes," he said. "When these student versions are created, they really try to keep the majority of the show intact."
Set in the early 19th century, "Les MisÚrables" follows Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a piece of bread. Valjean is released on parole, but he immediately breaks it and changes his name to start a new life as a mayor and adoptive father. The story spans more than a decade of Valjean's life as he continues to elude Inspector Javert, who has made it his life's mission to track down Prisoner No. 24601.
Other stories develop during the production involving poverty, deceit and a rebellion against the French king, which requires the use of gun props.
Although they are props, four muskets used in the Janesville show can shoot blanks. Tropp likes using them because they effectively express the musical's emotion. However, he required 18 of his actors to take a firearms safety course with the Janesville Police Department to ensure no one would be hurt.
"Les MisÚrables" is a story people will understand and empathize with, Jan Knutson said.
"This show is inspiring," she said. "While it's not all about happiness and sunlight, it's about the triumph of the human spirit and what we can do when we care for one another and work with one another. I think that message is one that people connect with."
Tropp said he has gotten criticism for taking on such a difficult show, but he knows the cast will surprise audiences.
"Shows like this are challenging, but it's rewarding," Tropp said. "The day we say, 'We can do that-no problem," is the day we're not going to be artists. Out of respect, we fear it.
"After five minutes, you're not going to know it's a high school show," he said.
Allison August, Matthew Dines, Madeline Flynn, Donnie Klukas, Elizabeth Luster, Karissa Opie, Jordan Peyer, Marga Ramsdell, Ellen Reid, Joelle Strand.
Jim Tropp, director; Jan Knutson and Brian Knutson, music directors; Michael Stanek, choreographer; Amber Dalton, assistant director; Ellen Reid, stage manager; Andrew Brackett, technical director; Elliott Little, sound; Michael Schuler, special effects/video; Sharon White, costumes.