Students collaborate to stage 'Les Miserables' at Byham Theater

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More than 150 students from 20-plus local schools will bring the French Revolution to life at the Byham Theater, Downtown, tomorrow, kicking off a four-day run of "Les Miserables."

"It's definitely an opportunity that not a lot of high school students get to be a part of," violinist Hope Vannucci said about the only full-scale student musical staged in the Cultural District. "It's definitely something special."

'Les Miserables'
  • Where: Byham Theater, Downtown.
  • When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.
  • Tickets: $25-$30 ($15-$20 for children). or 412-456-6666.

The 17-year-old Pittsburgh CAPA senior is one of the instrumentalists performing in the production's full orchestra. Students from Pittsburgh Musical Theater's Richard E. Rauh Conservatory make up the cast.

"Seventy-eight students on the stage from Pittsburgh Musical Theater, 80-some students in the pit from CAPA -- you bring that all together and it's just absolute magic," said Colleen Petrucci, director and choreographer.

All this magic stems from an idea generated about five years ago from a much smaller collaboration -- one between PMT founding director and producer, Ken Gargaro, and Pittsburgh CAPA instrumental music department coordinator and orchestra conductor, David Knapp.

They thought it would be interesting, and challenging, to let "kids do the performing but support them in all aspects with professionals," Gargaro said.

"Because of the combination of the orchestra that is drawn from the city and our students that are drawn from the county, you really have a diverse student population, which is sometimes difficult to achieve in the performing arts," he said.

Eight productions and hundreds of students later, PMT and Pittsburgh CAPA are gearing up for a ninth collaboration and third staging of "Les Miserables."

"Here in this arena we are training young instrumental and orchestra musicians," Knapp said. "So we tend to use shows that are far more lavish -- shows that involve a lot of students in the process."

This week's run marks their first time performing the musical opera at the Byham Theater. Past PMT and Pittsburgh CAPA productions of "Annie" and "Cinderella" also were held there. Prior to 2008, the student musicals were produced in the Pittsburgh CAPA Theater, Downtown.

"We could not do something of this scope without partnering with a community organization," Knapp said. "The kids get an opportunity to partner and learn on a greater scale because of the community outreach."

The collaboration with the Byham Theater makes the experience even more professional for students because it gives them the opportunity to perform in a union house, which also means rehearsal time is limited, Gargaro said. Students have been rehearsing for three weeks but practices at the Byham begin this week.

Memorizing lines, learning music and finding time for homework are other stresses students face due to rigorous rehearsal schedules.

"You have to try to do as much as you can whenever you can -- in the car, in between breaks. There [are] a lot of late nights involved," said Zander Lyons, 15, a sophomore at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School, Coraopolis.

Little rehearsal time also poses obstacles for the production's artistic team.

"Our biggest challenge is our own preparation," Petrucci said. "After that point [the challenge is] bringing the story to life for these students so they love it."

Another challenge is covering the high production costs, especially those related to renting a theater in the Cultural District, Gargaro said.

Despite these difficulties, curtains open for student matinees and public performances in less than three days, and Petrucci thinks the students will be ready.

Like the French in the musical who unite to fight in the revolution, she said the students are "ready to fight. They're ready to perform."

Sara Bauknecht can be reached at 412-263-3858 or .


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