BWW Review: Belmont's School LES MISERABLES is Les Fabuleux
There's a belief out there that the "junior" or "school" editions of most major musicals are scrubbed clean and free of any even remotely questionable material, much as many high school productions of GREASE attempt to make the show make sense while eliminating Rizzo's pregnancy. It's always refreshing when a high school version of a show doesn't butcher the material, so the students working on it and watching it can understand what the content is supposed to reflect. That's particularly (and surprisingly) true of the high school version of LES MISERABLES. The award winning show by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boblil is a complex and most definitely mature story but the high school production is mostly a bit comfortably shorter and not incomprehensibly cleaned and polished out of recognition.
It's on stage now at The Belmont Theatre, directed by Rene Staub, and if anything is noticeably missing, it's a few verses of songs, mostly ones mentioning alcohol or containing potentially derogatory language about minorities (although crediting anything M. Thenardier says about anyone would clearly have been a mistake anyway). More particularly, it's on stage with a cast composed of over ten schools' best talent, many of whom have performed at The Belmont before.
Vinny Beck, the production's Jean Valjean, is scarcely credible... as being a high school student. A multiple York County Encore Awards winner, his performance feels mature enough to have been that of an adult performer; certainly, his voice is mature enough, as is his emotional range, particularly clear in the scenes from the cart accident and his unmasking himself in "Who Am I"/"The Trial" through his fight with Javert in Act One.
Inspector Javert is played by Seth Shields, a talented younger vocalist who recently sang at Carnegie Hall. Shields admits that the more he's learned about Javert, the more fascinating the character becomes; it's possible that this was partly from his meeting with David Masenheimer, who's played Javert on Broadway and in the national tour. Shields' performance on "Stars" is outstanding, by any standards, not just school ones, and he's able to give a clear portrayal of a man whose world really is shaken by the discovery that people can change.
But true credit must go to Ben Fowler and Kendall O'Keefe, who bear the comic - and character part - burden of the show as M. and Mme. Thenardier, innkeepers and thieves. They've taken these parts by the horns and refused to let go, and their comic relief is comic indeed. They maintain the same level of lunacy as well as strong voices throughout the show, from their leading a rousing ensemble number in "Master of the House" through Thenardier's vicious "Beggars at the Feast." It is these two characters who lighten the load of the audience throughout the show, and Fowler and O'Keefe perform as if no one's ever told them that comedy is hard work.
Chloe Braden's Eponine is also worthy of note; Eponine is a tricky and underappreciated part, yet she has the two main adult female songs of the second act, "On My Own" and "A Little Fall of Rain," which are, like many of the songs in LES MIS, even more complicated to sing than they sound. Braden makes the job look easy, as well as being one of the best student Eponines this writer has seen, including several college productions.
Because this show is what it is, attention must be paid to the two youngest soloists, Young Cosette and Gavroche. Morgan Burkhart as young Cosette sings a beautiful "Castle in the Clouds," while Rowan Barber is a charming, puckish Gavroche who already shows some surprising acting talent.
Staub's set design, executed by Joel Persing, includes a turntable that's used effectively not just for the barricade but for the scenes with Cosette and Marius in Valjean's yard and for a particularly effective staging of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." The entire set is well conceived, but the turntable works especially well when employed in the multiple purposes for which Staub sets it.
It's a huge production for the Belmont stage, both in the size of the show and the size of the cast, but it comes off well. The audience was genuinely moved, and not just because of knowing the members of the cast. The production is lovely. At the Belmont in York through the 24th; visit thebelmont.org for tickets and information.