I was definitely moved by the Wilmington, Delaware high school’s outstanding production of LES MISERABLES. Let me say at the beginning that I have never seen the play before and my expectations were high. I was pleasantly (no pun intended) surprised not only with some very talented individual performances, but I thought Mount Pleasant High School Director Chris Turner’s noteworthy ensemble cast turned out a remarkable theatrical performance–one all involved in the production should be proud of.
This particular “School Edition” version, as it says in the program, was “abridged to a running time of just over two hours, while carefully maintaining the integrity of one of the greatest musicals ever written.” LES MISERABLES is indeed an epic musical with a depth of thought so great I am thrilled to see it even attempted by a high school production. This group did a superb job.
The Broadway production of LES MISERABLES opened 12 March 1987, and ran until 18 May 2003, closing after 6,680 performances. It became one of Broadway’s longest running shows. It was nominated for twelve Tony’s and won eight, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
Its source is based on Victor Hugo‘s 1500-page novel of various struggles of adversity in 19th century France, of proving worth, of redemption and of revising attitudes so strongly imprinted changing them seems impossible.
Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread and, after several escape attempts that add to his sentence, is finally released from prison after 19 years. A modern version would say he tries to go straight but can’t. Valjean is befriended by a Bishop who takes him in and feeds him, then defends him when police bring him back with silver he has taken from his house. Now, committed to making a decent life for himself and others, he is pursued relentlessly by Inspector Javert. Valjean isn’t the only one in the play in need of redemption.
This show’s triumph was in part due to Chris Turner’s leadership, with outstanding musical direction by Alexis Droke and wonderful choreography by Patricia Ignudo. Although there was truly an excellent ensemble cast, there were also standouts among the leads. Donald Coggin was simply amazing as “Jean Valjean.” Emily Ozer did a great job as “Eponine.” Christine Kirk’s ever so sweet singing “Fantine” was critical to the first act and again memorable when she came back as a ghost. Ian Miller as “Marius” and Josie Beichner as “Cosette” made a fine duet. Miller has a very pleasant soft voice that complemented Beichner’s also soft soprano. Aaron Gertler did a fine job singing “Javert,” although at times he seemed less comfortable on stage.
And how could I miss the interesting and entertaining pair, the Thenardiers? I thought their characters were very interestingly portrayed. Kevin Chan’s character seemed to have a bit of Johnnie Depp thrown in and Emily Spiegel’s coarser way of speaking was consistent but seemed a bit of the cockney. In France?
When a show is not so together, the comedy relief can steal the show; this is one time they didn’t, and it was a good thing. Audiences like to laugh so we notice the comic relief. As it happens, comic relief should fade into the ensemble especially when the whole show comes together so well. It should never take center stage.
The costumes were some of the best I’ve seen anywhere–even professional shows; I honestly thought they were rented. And, the set, especially the barricade, was phenomenal. I haven’t seen anything that intricate as “barricades” or “trash heaps” since CATS that could actually work on stage. The ensemble cast maneuvered around the stage in unison when needed and moved smartly individually as if they owned it at other times. I don’t like too many dancers on stage at any given moment. Too many dancers mean less room for variety in choreography, but this wasn’t a problem here. A cast this size could easily fill the stage should everyone come out at once.
To be fair, there is not a lot of dancing, but a lot of movement to be choreographed rather than blocked as one would in a straight play. What dancing there was (the waltz, for example) could have been smoother. In the waltz scene, it appeared the girls were dancing and the boys were just walking around. I loved that the area surrounding the orchestra was used as an additional acting area and not just a way to get the singers more out front; there seemed to be a definite purpose in mind. But I didn’t love Javert’s death scene. I grant you it was creative, but I think I would rather have just heard his voice and a sound effect. I think it would have been as dramatic.
The lighting design worked well to separate areas of the stage and cover actors who left the stage (on purpose). Sound wasn’t quite as consistent, with mics cutting out at the most inopportune times, but the actors ignored it as they should and minimized the distraction. The orchestra played well, but as happens occasionally, the output overwhelmed the singers, making it hard to hear the words.
It is important in LES MISERABLES to have lead characters with strong voices to sing the solos, and also be part of an ensemble cast as well to make sure it is about more than one man’s journey and reflects the hard life in which he lived. If you don’t have both simultaneously, you don’t have the power to succeed with this play. It’s a complicated story and it needs all the hands in it to play their parts equally well.
We can read and see plays, but until we actually have an opportunity to be part of a production do we feel the power, insight and communicative might of theatre. We understand it better as art, but we also understand many more things as well. Plays teach us about life. Some hold up a mirror to life; some make us take notice of our life and others just make us feel something–good or bad, happy or sad, but rarely indifferent. These students will never be indifferent. They will care, even if it is not about theatre; but they will care.
There always exists the question with reviewers and the general public: Is it fair to review a high school production? Fair isn’t the word I would use. Is it right? Depends.
We learn by what others say. We respect the word of those more experienced. We ask for help. We don’t expect blatant negative criticism. What we want is constructive criticism carefully doled out with perspective–if we want to learn. We expect the person we ask for help to keep our experience level in perspective, our unique situation. So, perspective, maybe, is the word.
It wouldn’t make sense to compare elementary school students to middle school students or middle school students to high school students. High school students, some of whom will never venture on stage again cannot be faithfully compared to professionals or enthusiastic amateurs with years of practice. But the show’s the thing. If a group does justice to the original, it should be recognized, regardless of the actors’ level of education or experience in the art.
My opinions are my opinions. They are tempered by my experiences and education. Some of what I say may make sense and you may agree. Others, from their point of view, may disagree. My advice: take criticism with a degree of skepticism; there are no absolutes. Don’t react to it immediately. When the moment is calmer, you may even find you agree.
I’m not big on standing ovations or even long curtain calls. This group truly deserved the ovation it received because until tonight I’d never seen a high school take on a tougher musical and do it so well that I forgot I was sitting in a high school auditorium. The real reason for the ovation is obvious: this production of LES MISERABLES showed dedication, talent and lots of practice. The cast, production crew and all the community support it garnered, truly deserved the accolades that followed.