Denfeld News

July 15, 2007
Duluth Budgeteer News

All-city high school musical returns
By Matthew R. Perrine

For the first time in six years, there will be an all-city high school musical in Duluth.

The summer pastime is back, and at the helm is Matthew Pursi, a graduate of Denfeld High School (’01) and the University of Minnesota Duluth (’05).

He admitted that “Fame” wouldn’t have been his first choice to usher in a new age of the citywide productions, but it’s starting to grow on him — even becoming one of his favorites.

“When the script was brought up to me, I was like, ‘Really? We want to do this one?’” he said Monday. “I read it, and I thought, OK, this isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. A lot better than the movie, I felt.”

A veteran of the all-city musicals himself — as a high schooler, he was involved in the productions of “My Fair Lady,” “Oliver!” and “Oklahoma!” — Pursi said play selection isn’t an easy process.

“You always want to go with the big crowdpleasers — like ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Hello, Dolly!’ or ‘Grease’ — but, at the same time, ‘Fame’ is known and yet not known,” he said. “ It only debuted in ’88, so it’s really not that well known, and it’s of a great time period these kids are not really that familiar with — which a lot of the audience will be.

“It’s gonna be something a lot of people can relate to.”

“Fame” has existed in numerous incarnations throughout the years. It debuted as a popular Alan Parker film in 1980. After that, it ran as a television series on NBC for five years until the theatrical versions started making the rounds.

“The show deals with some tough issues,” Pursi said, mentioning “undertones” of drug overdose, homosexuality, sex and race relations. “It’s a gritty musical, but, at the same time, it’s something everyone’s going to love.”

Pursi wasn’t sure what changed on the district level to get the all-city musicals back, but he credited its re-emergence to Central’s Liz Larson, Denfeld’s Mark Overland and East’s Jerry Upton.

“It was really all three schools started fighting for it again,” he said.

Overland, Denfeld’s choir director, said it took nearly two years of meetings to get the musicals back, but that Superintendent Keith Dixon “completely supports” the endeavor.

“Instead of dividing the city up,” Overland said, “they’re a good way to bring the city together.”

He also added that the plays went away because of financial constraints. As such, Pursi said the pressure’s on.

“I’m sure this year, for the district, they’re looking at this as a tester,” he said. “‘Do we want to keep supporting this?’ So, yeah, the stakes are a little high for this one. I don’t think we’re going to disappoint, though. I really don’t.”

Directing for the masses

Although Pursi directed Denfeld’s last two “regular season” plays, he said putting together an all-city musical is a whole different animal.

He said the high schoolers, most of whom are working together for the first time, are “very protective and not sure what they want to do or how to go about it.”

“As for the kids who are brand new, sometimes they’re the most bold ’cause they don’t know what to do, so they’ll just do whatever,” he continued. “Sometimes it turns out to be the best stuff we put in the play. Sometimes the ‘happy mistakes’ stay in.”

Since Pursi’s been in their shoes, he knows exactly what they’re going through.

“When it all boils down, they’re all still in high school,” he said. “They have a lot to learn still about the theater, and this is a big way to help them.

“I know a lot of them want to go on in theater, and it’s a tough business — so hopefully we’re kind of teaching that … before they start dumping thousands of dollars into college for it.”

Pursi said he actually realized acting wasn’t for him when he got to UMD and saw all the immense talent around him. He knew his calling was still theater, so he honed his behind-the-scenes chops there. From that program, he moved on to the Duluth Playhouse, where he served as its resident stage manager and props master. Pursi will soon return to his alma mater to get his teaching degree.

“I just want to give them more money,” he joked. “I love giving money away.”

Instead of the move-out-to-New-York-and-try-to-get-famous route, Pursi’s going to stick around.

“The passion starts in these small towns,” he said, “and if we start to ignore the small towns, then there’s going to be no one left to go off and be famous.”

Pursi might even return to what he’s been doing the last couple of months.

“It’s more fun in the high school circuit, it really is,” he said. “The egos aren’t as bad. And you’re usually guaranteed an audience — the families will come — and they’ll be forgiving.

“Maybe I’m going the safer route, but I don’t care.”

News to Use

An all-city high school cast will perform “Fame” at 7:30 p.m. July 26-28 at Denfeld Auditorium. Cost is $10 for adults and $6 for students and senior citizens.

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