Girl working hard

‘Les Mis’ Takes One Home for the City

Listen up conservatories, suburban schools, and private institutions—the following statement might just knock you off your fancy theater high horse.  It doesn’t take the most funding or the most training to produce the finest high school musical theater production.  As was made evident by the most recent main stage musical production of Les Misérables, Southwest High School is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to theater.

The winning formula, apparently, is hard work combined with a generous dose of theater-kid adrenaline.  As always audition week for the spring musical meant a high level of stress for participating students.  The result was a strong cast of over sixty performers, and inevitably, a fair share of tears.  It seemed the top consideration when casting (though you shouldn’t quote me on this) was singing ability, as each and every lead was equipped with an exceptional voice.

Over two months later, the March 3 opening was not only long anticipated, but especially relevant to current events.  Adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel of the same title, “Les Mis” surrounds the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, thus dealing with themes of rebellion, heroism, death and loss, and questions of morality—all of which are relevant to recent affairs in Egypt in Libya.  Though it is unclear whether this realization had an impact on audience reception, there is no denying that the show was a hit from the get-go.

The plot begins when Jan Valjean, also known as Prisoner 24601, is given parole after nineteen years of debilitating work as punishment for stealing a mouthful of bread to save his starving family (already, it is clear this show is not a comedy).  Carter Bellaimey, who played Valjean, convincingly carried the weight of the world—and the production—on his shoulders.  Inspector Javert—played by Tyus Beeson, whose resounding baritone voice enthralled the audience—tells Valjean he’ll never forget him, kicking off the cop-outlaw pursuit that thereon drives the production.

Years later, the poor tortured Fantine—sung beautifully by Sarah Shelley—loses her job at a factory because of her troubling concern for her daughter, Cosette, and instead becomes a prostitute; Valjean has broken his parole and under a different name is now mayor; and the Thénadiers—whose rapacity for money was conveyed hilariously by Louis Umbarger and Anna Kay—practice their parental ineptitude over the penniless Cosette along with their own daughter, Éponine.  After another ten years or so (who really knows?), the students of France’s working class are organizing resistance under the leadership of Enjorlas—who, under the talented Kristian Lee, seemed as excited to shoot up the enemy as a five-year-old boy playing G.I. Joe—and his eight or so fellow student followers—who throughout the show could be spotted jumping around the stage like a bunch of testosterone-filled jackrabbits.

Among these students is Marius, whose infatuation with the grown-up Cosette literally controls his will to survive.  In these roles, actors Ben Tracy and Jenny LeDoux skillfully plucked the heartstrings of audience members, with an impressive and beautifully matched set of voices at their disposal.  Like all dramas, true love does not come without a jealous soul on the side: thus we have Éponine—played by the adorable and talented Franchesca Dawis—whose love of Marius and envy of Cosette is both understandable and pitiful.

Director Margaret Berg, with the help of Musical Director Nathan Knoll and Choreographer Colleen Callahan, capably drew forth an invigorating energy and well-rounded performance from each cast member.  The production was further brought to life by Jack Harness’s professional set and David Premack’s lighting design, which together caused the stage to resemble a French cobblestone square straight out of a Mother Goose pop-up book.  The cherry on top was a talented and wholly committed group of student pit musicians under the direction of Keith Liuzzi.

So the next time you are contemplating the level of talent at Southwest compared to other schools, allow your mind to drift not to our basketball team, but our theater department.  For though we may be just a public city high school, year after year we crank out some of the best high school productions in the area.  Even so, it is questionable whether Southwest will ever again be able to reach the caliber of Les Misérables.