‘les miz’ With a new spin

By Lorraine Spencer

West Branch High’s production features a rotating stage.

BELOIT — West Branch High School’s season-concluding production of “Les Mis rables” is a crowning achievement for both the theater department and John Zamarelli, director.

Zamarelli, chorus and theater teacher at West Branch, said the production “has accomplished many educational goals as well as offering the community an opportunity to see a professional musical drama.”

“Les Miz” is a musical that’s more like an opera, because every line is sung. It is a demanding work that can be daunting to any theater company, especially a high school.

West Branch not only embraced the challenge but surpassed it by creating an 18-foot wide circular motor-driven rotating stage, a complicated set piece seldom done at this level.

Traditionally “Les Miserables” is staged on a simple unit set. The turning stage, which Zamarelli designed, is based on the Broadway production, and was a huge undertaking to build. It is controlled by a powerful variable-speed motor that rotates both clockwise and counterclockwise.

The feat took a lot of time and financial commitment to build and operate, said Zamarelli, but it provides the audience with a constantly flowing, real-time story that “combines the historical fiction of the show with 20th century technology to create a vibrant, living picture of poverty, love, indignant rebellion, and the ever-present clash of good and evil.”

Zamarelli’s theater class is responsible for all technical aspects of the production. It helped build the set, designed and created costumes, and coordinates the crew. The students have produced three other full-scale productions this year: “Mulan,” “Forever Plaid” and “Dearly Departed.”

Zamarelli said West Branch has an excellent theater program that gives the students many opportunities to learn and perform.

“Les Miserables” features a cast of more than 90 students.

“It is a new experience for them,” said Zamarelli. “They’ve never done an all singing show or one with such a high amount of drama. The choral students have done a wonderful job interpreting the show and performing with all the necessary emotion, expression, and theatrical and musical excellence required for this impressive and demanding presentation.”

Zamarelli has more than 25 years of theater experience, but this is his first experience with “Les Mis rables.” The rights to the show are only available for productions with students under age 18, he said, so no community or university theaters have done the show.

“Most students in our district have barely seen many live theater productions, let alone an opera with such a beautiful musical score,” Zamarelli said, “but these students are actually performing a full scale operatic work because the entire script is sung.”

“Les Miserables” is based on a novel by the same name written in 1862 by Victor Hugo. Set at the beginning of the French Revolution during the 1840s and ’50’s, the play focuses on Jean Valjean, an escaped convict, whose life is changed by a kind bishop. Valjean reforms and goes on to touch the lives of many others, most notably that of his adopted daughter, Cosette, as well as his daughter’s mother, Fantine; Cosette’s lover, Marius, who is the leader of the student revolution; and Marius’ best friend Enjolras.

“Les Miserables” reveals the political unrest that thrived under the noses of the wealthy, uncaring dignitaries across France, particularly in Paris.

Zamarelli has also included an “outreach” performance at 3 p.m. Saturday for students from surrounding high schools who are involved in the drama, instrumental and choral music, or foreign language. Tickets for this performance are free of charge to the students and are available through the instructors of the classes at the high schools.

X“Les Mis rables” will be presented in the West Branch Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Friday; 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $8. There will be a dinner before Friday’s performance; tickets are $20. Call (330) 938-4442.

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