Denfeld News

July 26, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

High school students back in the spotlight for 'Fame'
By Sarah Horner

After a seven-year hiatus, the Duluth school district is reviving its citywide high school musical with “Fame,” and just like the lyrics in its hit song, this time supporters hope the program is “gonna live forever.”

From its inception in 1986, the program pulled performers — from incoming freshmen to outgoing seniors — from the three public high schools to perform a summer musical. Budget constraints caused the program to be dropped in 2001 but supporters lobbied for its reinstatement.

“If we want the city to come together, this is the way to do it,” said Mark Overland, Denfeld’s choral director and the producer for “Fame.” “Put students to a common cause where there is no competition and let them create something.”

It’s similar to cooking, said Liz Larson, theater director at Central High School and choreographer for “Fame.”

“It’s like when you’re having a bickery day with your spouse,” she said. “If you decide to cook something together you know by the time it’s finished you’ll get over it. By creating something together we bring our community and our kids closer.”

The six-week summer enrichment program allows students to dig a little deeper into their craft. Students who are swamped with other activities during the school year can explore theater during their summer break.

“We have a hockey player doing a show for the first time,” said Matthew Pursi, a Denfeld alumnus who serves as a freelance director for the school’s plays. “He could never do theater before because he was always playing during the school year. There are way fewer conflicts for kids in the summer.”

Instead of looking to just one professional to teach choreography, music and acting, students get to work with the best from each of the district’s three high schools. Larson teaches choreography while Pursi directs. Jerry Upton, East’s choral director, is the vocal director and Sebastian Tackling, Denfeld’s band director, is music director.

“It allows each of us to focus on one area, which enhances the quality of the show,” Larson said. “Plus each school with its own program brings a different style. I came in one morning and the kids were stretching and talking and I was like ‘No, no, no; we stretch our legs, not our mouths.’ If it’s [Pursi’s] rehearsal, he can do whatever he darn well pleases. I want focus, so you get that stylistic difference.”

The team approach also deepens the show’s pockets, Pursi said.

“We have 120 costumes for a 30-member cast for this show; if this were a Denfeld show we might have 30 costumes, one for each kid,” he said.

The production staff chose “Fame” for its scope.

“The goal of the summer musical is to be an enrichment program. We want to enrich students by providing them with a venue that they can come to when they are not in school and learn more about performing and all the aspects that come with it,” Larson said, such as singing, dancing and set building. “ ‘Fame’ has a lot of those elements.”

“Fame” tells the story of a group of high school students honing their craft in the hopes of becoming famous after they leave New York’s High School for Performing Arts. The performance is kind of a sequel to the 1980 movie but with all new characters, Pursi said. But the theme remains true to its predecessor.

“It’s about big hair, big, bright prom dresses and I think big dreams,” Pursi said.

Students from all three high schools make up the 28-member cast. Another seven students serve on the crew with 10 more in the orchestra pit.

Brian Langlee, a recent Denfeld graduate who landed one of the lead roles, said he is having a blast.

“I like having different people here. I am so used to the Denfeld crowd but I like getting the Central and East kids in here,” said Langlee, who plays Schlomo Metzenbaum. “We’ve become like a big family; we already know each other too well.”

Sarah Eliason, an East student who portrays Carmen Diaz, describes the experience as amazing.

“I’ve met so many awesome people, people I probably wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for this,” she said. “Yeah, it is during the summer when I could be sleeping in, but then I would be sitting home bored with nothing to do.”

Overland hopes the show is successful enough to keep the program alive for years. Ticket sales need to pay back the show’s production costs, which are around $7,000, and supporters will have to convince the school district to keep the summer musical on its priority list.

“We have to show the community that this is a viable summer program,” Larson said. “It’s good for our schools, good for our kids and good for our community.”

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