Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Les Misérables: School Edition
Theater Works / Youth Works
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Velocity of Autumn, In the Heights, Love, Loss, and What I Wore, The Mousetrap, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and 3C


Addison Bowman and Julian Mendoza
Photo by Moran Imaging / Theater Works
In the fall of 1986 Kelli James was in rehearsals as an ensemble member for the American premiere production of Les Misérables. That musical would take her and the rest of the original Broadway cast first to D.C.'s Kennedy Center and then onto Broadway where James would also understudy and eventually take over for Tony winner Frances Ruffelle as Eponine, a role she would play in New York for a year. Thirty years later, James, now a Scottsdale resident, has taken her first-hand experience working with the original creative team, along with her deep devotion to this show, to direct a group of gifted teenagers in Theater Works' Youth Works production of Les Misérables: School Edition. It is an impressive production with a cast of talented teens, sumptuous creative elements, and James' surefooted direction that ensures every meaningful moment of this musical version of Victor Hugo's epic tale of struggle and redemption resonates with a deep passion.

Set in 19th century France, Les Misérables tells the story of Jean Valjean who was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. When his original five year sentence becomes almost twenty after he tries to escape, he has become a very bitter and worried man. He is paroled but in a moment of desperation robs a bishop, who in turn saves him—that act of kindness gives Valjean a second chance. How that event turns him into a positive person, along with his redemption and how that changes him, is the force behind the emotional journey of the story. Valjean leaves his past behind to become a changed man and help others around him. The driving element behind the plot is that Valjean is relentlessly hunted by the police inspector Javert.

The show won numerous Tony and Olivier Awards, is still running in London, and a second Broadway revival just closed in New York. The musical also received a fairly successful film adaptation. For the School Edition, the creators abridged the show by eliminating a few less important moments and some verses in several songs. These cuts, however, don't change the profound insight and understanding of the story that Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer so skillfully adapted.

James has cast some of the most talented young actors and singers in the Valley for this production. Julian Mendoza makes an exceptional Valjean. He is delivering a performance equal to one you'd see from someone with years more experience. He does well in portraying the various ages and stages of Valjean's life and provides an intense emotional connection to his songs. His vocal abilities are stunning and his performance of "Bring Him Home" is one the audience won't soon forget. It is vivid, stirring and profound with crystal clear notes that soar to the ceiling of the Peoria Arts Center and hang in the air to be savored. Trey DeGroodt does well as Javert, the inspector who makes it his lifelong mission to hunt Valjean down. His delivery of the lyrics seems internal, and even somewhat unbalanced, which works well to show the uncertainty that Javert experiences and tries to hide under his calculating exterior.

Addison Bowman is giving one of the best portrayals I've seen of Fantine, the woman whose child, Cosette, Valjean helps raise. She delivers a stunning version of "I Dreamed a Dream," arguably the best known song from the show, and infuses the part with a deep sense of regret for how Fantine's life has turned out. It is an extremely memorable and heartwrenching performance, with an emotional heft and well thought out gestures, facial expressions, and body movement. Bowman perfectly captures the anguish of her character and the journey that Fantine has been forced to take.

As Marius, the student who falls in love with the grown up Cosette, Vincent Pugliese instills shows a keen sense of hope and compassion for the other characters he comes in contact with. Pugliese has an assured delivery and connects very clearly with the lyrics and dialogue. As Eponine, the poor girl in love with the richer Marius, Sarah Pansing delivers a soaring version of "On My Own" as well as a feisty portrayal of the girl in love with someone who doesn't love her back. Katie Rodin is Cosette, Fantine's daughter whom Valjean adopts and Marius loves. Her lovely voice hits some stirring operatic notes that bring a rich clarity to her songs. As Enjolras, the leader of the student revolutionaries, Griffin LeBlanc brings a clear sense of authority and gravitas that gets across the strong leader who has a clear understanding of the struggles that he and his fellow students are up against. Sam Primack and Quincey Janisse play the Thénardiers, the the couple who are not only Eponine's parents but Cosette's original caretakers when she was much younger. They provide most of the humorous moments in the show and both actors are fully up to that challenge. As Gavroche, the young boy who has plenty of gumption, Kylan Chait is a crowd pleaser, full of charm and a sure-footed stage presence.

James' clear and concise direction ensures that the actors make their roles distinct and that a deep emotional sense prevails throughout. She stages her scenes very well, with good use of the large stage, and provides a swift pace with scene changes that are seamlessly incorporated. Even though this is the school edition the mature elements of the musical are intact, so there are several PG-13 rated gestures in such numbers as "Lovely Ladies" and "Master of the House." My only one quibble, and it is a small one considering how talented this cast is, is that some of the cast members make some of these gestures a bit too broad or over the top, which makes those moments seem amateurish compared to the rest of this beautiful production.

While this is a show with a minimal amount of dance, Paul Pedersen's period perfect choreography is integrated seamlessly throughout. Production elements are top notch, with the combination of Brett Aiken's lush set design and Jeff A. Davis' exceptional lighting, full of shadows and lovely hues, creating a non-stop visual treat throughout. Costume designers Tamara Treat and Barb Ross provide a feast for the eyes. Matthew Sanders' sound design delivers a crisp, clean and clear sound. James May's musical direction is exquisite—the fact that this production is using prerecorded tracks (and they are sensational) makes his work that much more exceptional in that the cast never falters in keeping up with the recording.

Les Misérables is one of the most beloved musicals of the past fifty years due to the sumptuous score and the amount of emotion and depth that the characters and the story provide. Kelli James and her superb cast and creative team do justice to the beauty of this beautiful tale of redemption and love and prove that the young actors in the Phoenix area are more than up to the challenge of bringing this musical vibrantly to life.

Les Misérables runs through September 25th, 2016, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at theaterworks.org or by calling 623-815-7930.

Book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Director: Kelli James
Music Director: James May
Choreographer: Paul Pedersen
Stage Manager: Courtney Stevens
Scenic Design: Brett Aiken
Costume Designer: Tamara Treat
Assistant Costume Designer: Barb Ross
Props Designer: Jason Washburn
Lighting Designer: Jeff A. Davis
Sound Designer: Matthew Sanders

Cast:
Jean Valjean: Julian Mendoza
Javert: Trey DeGroodt
Fantine: Addison Bowman
Young Cosette: Gwendolyn Craw
Madame Thénardier: Quincey Janisse
Thénardier: Sam Primack
Young Eponine: Sydney Wolfert
Gavroche: Kylan Chait
Eponine: Sarah Pansing
Enjolras: Griffin LeBlanc
Marius: Vincent Pugliese
Cosette: Katie Rodin

Ensemble Ladies:
Amy Alley
Jasmine Bassham
Allison Belsan
Sophia Chavez
Ali Giordano
Morgan Goldberg
Kendra Goodenberger
Carly Jacobs
Phoebe Koyabe
Olivia La Porte
Samantha Locklear
Terese Sanchez
Trinity Tate
Camden Wawro
Ryley Youngs

Ensemble Men:
Evan Arganbright
Jeremy Bassham
Sam Brown
Emilio Cress
Drake Current
John Miller
Justin Moore
AJ Palubinskas
Josh Pike
Dylan Rinehart
Michael Strang


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