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English Isn't Their First Language, But International Students Perform "Phantom" with Ease

Dominican High School in Whitefish Bay might be a small Catholic school of about 300 students, but its theatrical undertakings would be daunting for many larger institutions.

Credit Kate H. Jurgens
Two students from the Wisconsin International Academy (center and left of center) perform in a scene from "Phantom of the Opera."

This year, its students are staging Andrew Lloyd Weber’s "The Phantom of the Opera," Broadway’s longest-running show whose license is now available for high schools. The elaborate production requires ample performance space, funding for props like a movable chandelier, and a lot of talent. 

Some of that talent came all the way from China.  Four boys in the musical come to Dominican through the Wisconsin International Academy. It helps Chinese students study in the United States.

Kevin Zhao (playing "Passarino"), Jaron Ton (Monkey and Ensemble) and Tommy Tang (Guard and Ensemble) arrived in the country about six months ago. Chris He (Guard and Ensemble) came when he started high school. They each have some background familiarity with music or drama, but none has been in a show quite like Dominican’s "Phantom."

The broad vocal ranges in the show make performing the musical a challenge for any cast; for example, the lead part of Christine Daae requires a soprano who can sing below middle C to high above the staff.

But theater director Jeff Schaetzke says Dominican's teenage actors are up to the task of taking on such an "iconic" show - and their Chinese peers' participation makes each performance an achievement in itself.

Schaetzke says he’s impressed the boys are brave enough to sing in English in front of an audience. But Chris says he's up for the challenge: "I want to be impressive, not shy."

Tommy says in China, the focus on studying is more intense, but in the U.S. people seem more serious about singing, adding "Americans sing loudly."

Phantom 2.jpeg
Credit Kate H. Jurgens

Jaron says what surprises him about the U.S. is the opportunities. "I’m a Chinese kid; I get to play the monkey," he jokes.

And you only have to listen to Kevin perform to know he has no nerves about singing in his non-native language. His role in Phantom even comes with a duet.

Acting might come easily to these Chinese boys, but other members of the cast commend their performances. The show's leads Sadie Piatt, Jarred Bedgood and Zoe Collins all agree the boys blend in well with others from Dominican.

When it comes to chorus numbers in "Phantom of the Opera," that blend is literal.

"The Phantom of the Opera" is on stage Thursday through Sunday at Dominican High School in Whitefish Bay.