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Norwalk High School students did an amazing job with ‘Barnum’

By Debbie Leffler • Mar 14, 2019 at 12:00 PM

I have seen the stage of the Ernsthausen Performing Arts Center become a village in Russia, a chocolate factory, a farm in the Oklahoma territory, the tiny town of Whoville and a well-to-do home in London.

But never before, until last weekend, did I see it become a circus.

Last weekend, the stage became a circus created through the “humbug” ideas of Phineas Taylor Barnum  — and the hard work and imagination of volunteer parents, teachers, students past and present  and some very talented student actors.

I remember when the “EPAC” — as it is known — was being built, step by step, alongside the new high school. The roof went on last. It was hard to picture what it would look like upon completion. But now it is done, and has been for quite a while.

The stage is amazing — big, wide, with a variety of curtains that can be opened and closed, and an area above the stage where ropes can be pulled to make people “fly,” and a place in front of the stage for a pit orchestra.

The audience area is also amazing — row upon row of comfortable seats, and a balcony with more comfortable seats.

But it would be nothing without the people who provide the lights, sound, costumes, choreography, makeup and acting.

Barnum, the musical, was quite a spectacle. Students performed cartwheels, juggled and pranced. They played the parts of a tiny man (Tom Thumb) as well as an ancient lady. Some skillfully walked on very tall stilts. There was a bearded lady. There were students pretending to be lions. Most scenes were in vivid color; one scene was purposely done in black and white.

There was the convincing conflict between Barnum — with his dreams and lies (a.k.a. humbugs) — and his lovely wife Charity, who put up with him and loved him despite all. The musical is based on the movie The Greatest Showman. I had never seen the movie, but now I want to. The musical at the high school sent me home researching more about the life of P.T. Barnum.

What is even more amazing than the transformation of the stage is the transformation of my students. Some who struggle with reading and writing in class blossomed into graceful dancers, singers and acrobats on the stage. They come to school each day looking forward to that afternoon or evening’s rehearsal after school. The come on weekends and stay late. They seem tired in class because of all the time they put into the musical, but it is a labor of love.

So now, this year’s musical is over. The students are sad and a little lost, because it was so all-encompassing and now it is gone. They had to clear the set and they had a cast party on Sunday after the last performance, and now it is back to the former routine.

The freshmen, sophomores and juniors can — and most will — be back next year for another musical. The cycle will begin anew — tryouts, parts announced, learning lines, putting dance numbers together, rehearsals, rehearsals and more rehearsals, fitting costumes, putting on makeup, and, finally, performances. But for the seniors, it is bittersweet. This is the last high school musical for them.

Some will return as student directors, stage managers and choreographers. Some will perform in theater productions in college. Some will return to join the audience at the EPAC watching a show with a new, younger cast. For all, being in the musical becomes a wonderful memory.

For me, it helps me remember that my students are more than what I see for 52 minutes in class each day. They have talents that go well beyond my classroom. I am grateful that I get to witness some of their talents each year in the musical.


Debbie Leffler is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. She can be reached at [email protected]

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