Foreign exchange students shine at Highlands musical ‘Hunchback’
An all-female foreign exchange student troupe graces the Highlands High School stage this season.
Five young ladies — Elisabetta Negrosini from Italy, Froydis “Freya” Rygh from Norway, Luna Vavourakis from Belgium, Tehreem Komal from Pakistan and Pat Sampantanarak from Thailand — will appear this week in the spring musical “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Highlands musical director and teacher Michael Zeiler said he’s never had so many foreign exchange students in one production.
“I love that my students are so diverse: able to learn from other people, and grow from other people, and accept their differences — and maybe even fall in love with their differences,” Zeiler said.
Kathy Herenski, AFS-USA program coordinator for Highlands, said the girls have been surprised by the amount of work that goes into a high school musical production and the almost four-month-long musical process.
“Our hope for the students when they come here to Highlands is that they will experience high school life in America, and we encourage them to participate in everything they can get into,” Harenski said. “And these five girls have done it all.”
The lead role of the enchanting gypsy Esmeralda went international this year, with Vavourakis impressing the judges during auditions last fall.
“The moment I saw the email, and I saw my name as Esmeralda, I just couldn’t believe it,” said Vavourakis, 18, from Sint-Niklaas, Belgium. “That was an amazing moment, and I think that’s the moment I’m never going to forget.”
Vavourakis trained as a ballerina in Belgium for more than a decade.
Negrosini, 17, said she is enjoying the experience.
“I used to dance back home, so I really enjoy moving around — the art of dancing,” Negro- sini said. “It’s fun for me. It reminds me of home, it’s sort of the same feeling when I am on stage here.”
A new experience
The girls said they don’t have high school musicals of this caliber in their home countries. It’s mostly dancing and smaller performances, they said.
Sampantanarak, 16, of Bangklolaem, Thailand, said she is in her school band back home, but her musical experience is teaching her new skills.
“My favorite song in the musical is ‘Hellfire’ because we sing in two languages — Latin and English — and the first time was kind of hard for me, but I like that I am challenging myself,” she said.
The girls dance together onstage during “Topsy Turvy” — a rousing and jubilant song in Act I.
Rygh, 17, lives in Bekkestus, Norway.
She said the musical demands were a shock, initially.
“In the beginning, I was like, ‘Oh my God — this is too much for me, and I can’t do it,’” Rygh said. “It’s three hours every day (rehearsal), but now that it’s getting close (to showtime) it’s really fun to be on the stage with the lights.”
Komal, 16, of Rawalpindi, Pakistan, decided to audition after reading the book, watching the Disney movie and catching musical excitement.
She said she loves how Natrona Heights is compact.
“In Pakistan, everything is just so far away,” Komal said.
“Since we don’t have stuff like this back in my country, it was a new experience for me and it really overwhelmed me at first,” Komal said. “But now, I know I’m going to miss it when it’s over.”
For director Zeiler, he credits the music for making memories.
“Music crosses barriers, it crosses bridges, it connects communities and cultures,” Zeiler said. “And that’s what we are doing here: We are bringing people together.”
Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.