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West Fargo High School junior McKenzie Schwark performs on stage during dress rehearsals for the theatre's production of "Les Miserables." Jamie Grant / West Fargo Pioneer

'Les Miserables' unique, fulfilling storytelling effort

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"Everyone has been doing a remarkable job in rising to the challenges and committing to a production that that will be tremendously different for audiences used to seeing more typical, lighter-fare on our stage."

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These words from Director Adam Pankow in reference to the West Fargo High School Theatre production of "Les Miserables" being presented by the West Fargo High School Drama Department in six performances Feb. 10, 11, 16, 17 and 18 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 12 at 2:30 p.m., in the West Fargo High School Theatre, 801 9th St. E.

The international smash-hit musical, based on Victor Hugo's acclaimed novel, "Les Miserables", breathtakingly recounts the struggle against adversity in 19th century France. Imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, petty thief Jean Valjean is released from his 19-year term and not only becomes and honest man, but the mayor of a prosperous town and a loving adoptive father - violating his parole in the process. The relentless Inspector Javert, who makes a decent life for Valjean impossible, consequently pursues him.

Only years later, after Valjean proves his mettle during a bloody student uprising and saves the life of a young man hopelessly in love with Valjean's adopted daughter, does the ex-convict finally feel fully redeemed. The sweeping score includes "Master of the House," "On My Own," "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," "Bring Him Home" and "I Dreamed a Dream."

The West Fargo High School's production features a company of over 100 young artists in its cast, crew and pit orchestra under the direction of a team of teachers and professionals lead by Pankow, who is serving as head director.

Pankow shares extra insight though a question and answer interview into the process of "pulling off" such a high profile performance as "Les Miserables" known to many through numerous stage and screen adaptations, but most notably the stage musical of the same name.

How was the selection of this particular production arrived at?

This production was selected in part to provide a balance in the season's casting opportunities.  Our fall musical "Cinderella," offered numerous choice roles for women; "Les Miserables" is a little more male-centered. The consideration that each show was on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of major themes explored also made "Les Miserables" an intriguing choice for inclusion.  Each show had a particular purpose in creating a unique and fulfilling educational theatre season. 

Given the more mature, serious nature of this production, is the performance causing any unusual or unexpected challenges compared to previous ones?

The fact that this production is providing new challenges is precisely the reason that "Les Miserables" was selected for presentation at West Fargo High School. The focus has to be stepped up by all the members of the team of actors, musicians and crew members. I think the students and staff involved with this production realize that this is the type of show that not every high school can pull off.  With that said, Everyone has been doing a remarkable job in rising to the challenges and committing to a production that that will be tremendously different for audiences used to seeing more typical, lighter-fare on our stage.

How does the level of technical and staging needs and acting and singing abilities compare to previous productions?

From the start of the rehearsals, the emphasis has been on clarity in storytelling. This show has an epic scope of needs which absolutely requires all production elements to be working in tandem with each other for the fullest understanding of the piece. With the understanding of these particular essentials, the company has created a visual, auditory and emotional experience like none other. "Les Miserables" has definitely raised the bar another level for WFHS Theatre. 

Have the directing duties been a step above par for you in this performance, and if so, how?

I still very much consider myself a novice director, so every show continues to provide me with an opportunity to grow, discover and find my particular niche as an artist and teacher. With this show, I have been so pleased to closely work with the small group and one-on-one scenes. It's easy to get focused on the scenes that involve the most people while trusting that the actors primarily involved with the smaller scenes will fill in some of the blanks that you can't quite get to. "Les Miserables" has afforded me plenty of opportunities for both kinds of scene work and the time to work each type fairly equally in rehearsals.  

You obviously enjoy what you are doing immensely. What aspects of a production like this provide the most professional gratification?

I think the reason anyone continues with activities like sports or theatre is the camaraderie those types of experiences can provide.  Theatre provides a particular kind of collaboration though that I think is unequalled. It's this diversity in collaboration that I enjoy most of all. First and foremost, I give my whole efforts and energies to these shows for the students who take part. Over 100 students are working closely on this production and are creating such artistic beauty. I take my responsibility to pay forward the incredible experiences I received as a teenager involved in theatre very seriously. 

The collaboration with my production colleagues ranks a close second in terms of personal gratification. It ceases to amaze me how so many creative minds can come to the table with their own set of talents and ideas and create a cohesive, polished show. This year especially, I feel so grateful to be creating with a team of individuals who are driven by the same student-centered artistic principles that I've aspired to make common-place at WFHS Theatre. I believe a person is only as good as the people around him and I am surrounded by some of the best local artists in town. It truly is an embarrassment of riches and talent between the students and artistic team here at WFHS.  

What role is Essentia Health's sponsorship playing in the program?

Collaboration also extends into our community. Essentia Health has been a sponsor of WFHS Theatre for the past two years and they are on board to sponsor our season offerings once again next year. Essentia first began their relationship with us two-and-a- half years ago when we were seeking donations to overhaul our theatre's sound and lighting system in time for the opening night of "CATS."  At that point, they pledged $2,500 to our efforts along with other major donations that year from Gate City and State Banks. 

Essentia's yearly sponsorship has aided in our continued efforts to replace and increase our inventory of sound and light equipment and other technology for our theatre department.  The gifts of Essentia and the significant in-kind work Flint Communications continues to do for WFHS Theatre has helped to put an extra polish on our recent productions and has made possible a more professional approach to the educational theatre offerings in our school. It goes without saying, we are very grateful for these collaborations.

If you had a sneak preview tidbit to entice readers to take in one of the productions what would it be?

If you have never experienced "Les Miserables," you must. For starters, the story is engaging from start-to-finish; it will wrench your heart at one moment and uplift it at the next.  As set to the powerful and sweeping score, the universal themes of Victor Hugo's original novel brilliantly reveal themselves through music that frequently overwhelms the soul with its keen sense of spirituality. Each individual working on the WFHS's production has given so unselfishly of themselves and their talents and is committed to telling this spectacular story in their own, unique way. There is definitely a reason "Les Miserables" has resonated so closely with millions of people all over the world - WFHS's take on the production will not disappoint even the most loyal of fans.

All the performances are open to the public and everyone is welcome and encouraged to attend. Tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for students. They can be reserved online at www.westfargotheatre.com or by calling 701-356-2050.

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