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Les Miserables: It's about the message

Hunting Hills High School tackles issues from poverty to politics with its upcoming, largest-yet theatrical performance.

The Red Deer school presents Les Misérables from March 7 to 15 at the Memorial Centre, featuring 97 student actors and 35 student technicians.

“It’s an enormous show, the biggest we’ve ever had and no doubt it’s presented the toughest challenges we’ve ever had,” said artistic director and drama teacher Bill Jacobsen. “There are probably about 600 to 700 costumes, with some students changing through six characters in 40 minutes.”

Adapted from French novelist Victor Hugo’s book first published in 1862, Les Mis takes place over a 20-year period, detailing slivers of French history and following the struggles of an ex-convict, Jean Valjean.

Hunting Hills’ take on the classic will be unique, however, said Jacobsen.

“Ours takes place in a time that’s not right now and no one knows when it is exactly. It’s a very dystopian look at the world. Our costume designer calls it old world modern. The set is an urban landscape, covered in newspaper and graffiti. ... It’s like steampunk meets district 12 from The Hunger Games,” he said.

Every other year, Hunting Hills takes on a musical and part of the reason for selecting Les Mis was the powerful chorus work it entails. As well, traditionally they like to highlight shows with messages of importance to all young people, Jacobsen said.

“These are issues that don’t just apply to the 19th century. They have relevance to things going on today.”

Working on such a massive scale presented its round of difficulties, of course, he added.

“The numbers are great because it’s showing such as interest from the students but logistically there were a lot of concerns: how do we give everyone significant stage time? We don’t believe in giving someone only two minutes on stage for the whole performance.”

Switching sets also allows for only 28 seconds to build a barricade across the stage, so there are a plethora of technical challenges as well, Jacobsen said.

Even rehearsing in Hunting Hills’ drama studio has become tormenting as the space is so small when paired with the pit band, many of the actors having no choice but to stand up against walls.

That being said, Jacobsen is awed by the students’ blooming confidence, as well as their passion and dedication to making the performance all it can be, he said.

Students took a class for the musical in the fall semester and researched the novel, learning songs and practising character development exercises on a daily basis.

After the semester finished, students continued to work on the musical two to three times a week, after school and on weekends.

Emily Bethune, a Grade 10 student at Hunting Hills, is a first-time performer and was cast as the role of Madame Thénardier.

“It’s been a bit crazy for me but I just love the arts ... I want to be involved in as much theatre as I can in my future career,” Bethune said. “My character is different than many of the others in the show; I’m somewhat of a comic relief so it’s a challenge but fun at the same time, especially when I get to sing my song centre-stage.”

Caleb Binder stars as the lead, Valjean, and said he’s enjoyed the musical’s “emotional” moments of self realization for his character.

“It’s a line-heavy part but he’s so dynamic and changes drastically from the start to the end so I really enjoyed that,” he said.

Binder, a Grade 12 student, also owned the stage as Danny in the school’s 2012 production of Grease.

He’s set to attend the University of Alberta’s musical education program in the fall and hopes to become a band teacher.

Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for children, students and seniors. There is also a dinner theatre option for $35.

For tickets or more information, visit

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