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BWW Review: Don't miss LES MISERABLES at Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre


Now on stage at the Robert Goldstine Performing Arts Center

BWW Review: Don't miss LES MISERABLES at Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre
Cosette (Erica Ashley) and Marius (Chase Blucker) share a moment of love, while Eponine (Ella Nagel) looks on. Photo by Darren Kessler.

The Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre, under the umbrella of the Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation, opened their summer show LES MISERABLES STUDENT EDITION this weekend to packed houses and rapturous applause. For many in the audience, it was the first time that they've been able to return to the theatre in person for almost a year and a half. In the pre-show words of director Andrew Sherman, this production passionately proves that "Live theatre is back." And it's back with a bang!

A few weeks prior to opening, I interviewed some of the cast about their building anticipation for the show, and I can say with confidence that the hard work of the cast, crew, and production team has paid off in full with their stunning performance opening night. LES MISERABLES is a massive undertaking, and FWSMT pulled out all the stops to make sure Fort Wayne received the full force of its glory.

The show is entirely sung-through, with little-to-no dialogue between songs. It's show-stopping number after show-stopping number from beginning to end. While the show clocks in at just under three hours, it's a three hours that will absolutely fly by in the presence of these young stars.

For those unfamiliar with the plot: the show follows Jean Valjean, just having been released from prison after spending years in a chain gang in 1815 France. An encounter with a generous priest gives him motivation to become someone new and improved, and the next segment of the musical takes us forward in time to 1823 where Valjean has broken his parole and reinvented himself as the successful and well-liked mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.

Not everyone's fortunes are so lucky, however, as we find out when we meet Fantine, a single woman working at a factory in order to make enough money to send to support her child, Cosette. When she loses her job- at Valjean's factory- she must turn to prostitution in order to survive, and eventually dies, with Jean Valjean swearing to track down and take care of her child. Around the same time, Inspector Javert- a stern policeman from Valjean's days on the chain gang- reveals to the mayor that they managed to capture the escaped convict known as Jean Valjean, and the real Valjean chooses to reveal himself and save an innocent man from going to jail in his place. Javert decides it will be his life's goal to track and capture Valjean, no matter the cost.

BWW Review: Don't miss LES MISERABLES at Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre
Little Cosette (Evelyn Wedler) sweeps the Thenardier's inn. Photo by Alex Leavell.

After successfully escaping Javert, Valjean finds Fantine's daughter living in squalor at the Thenardier's inn and pays the swindling, scheming Monsieur and Madame Thenardier in order to take Cosette away and raise her as his own. The musical jumps forward once again in time to Paris in 1832, nearly ten years later. Cosette has grown up and fallen for Marius Pontmercy, one of many idealistic young men caught up in organizing a revolution for the people of France (it's not THE French revolution, though; don't get your history confused). The rest of the show proceeds from there, including a heart-wrenching love triangle, stirring battles against the French government, and continued cat-and-mouse tension between Javert and Valjean.

Since I was a student participant in this program back when I was in high school, I've seen most of FWSMT's performances over the past decade. In my opinion, LES MISERABLES is not only the best production they've ever put on, but it's one of the best non-professional shows I've seen in Fort Wayne. I attended opening night with a small group of people, and we kept glancing at each other throughout the show with wide eyes as if to say, "Can you believe these singers? Where did these kids even come from?" These performers are something else, and I know that our audience that night was truly privileged to see them in action.

The entire ensemble was strong, but I'll mention a few standout performers.

Thom Greving embodied Javert from his first steps on stage. Every step, every tilt of his head, every movement of his elbow, all conveyed Javert's character with striking clarity during each scene he was in- and his voice in tandem with Aaron Hawley's Jean Valjean was stunning. I wanted their duets to go on for ages longer. Hawley's performance as Valjean was particularly captivating during "Bring Him Home," a song which brought me to tears. He previously starred as Tony in FWSMT's production of WEST SIDE STORY, and his vocal talents seemed to impossibly compound between then and now. You will not believe that these two are not professional musical theatre actors, though I'm sure they will be if they so desire.

Taylor Bock's tear-jerking rendition of Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" was another highlight of the show. It's been a long time since I've seen such a genuine outpouring of emotion on stage.

BWW Review: Don't miss LES MISERABLES at Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre
A raucous evening at the Thenardier's. Photo by Alex Leavell.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I have to applaud the Thenardiers for their impeccable comedic timing. Owen Saalfrank as Monsieur Thenardier managed to convey the perfect amount of confidence and sleaze, and his dramatic over-the-top physicality was entirely called for. Auriana Molina played the perfect counterpart as his wife, Madame Thenardier. Molina's vocalizations were some of the strongest in the cast, and she never failed to elicit roars of laughter from the audience. The pair rightfully stole every scene they were in, and their fun-filled "Master of the House" brought a tonal shift that was pure delight. I loved watching the ensemble during that number, too- there was so much action that you'd have to see the show more than once to catch everything happening in that action-packed song. It was pure fun.

The entire cast of Parisian revolutionary men impressed me with their fervor and passion as well. Their rendition of "Red and Black"- especially the concluding harmonies- was sensational. Bravo to Parker Bowman in particular, who captured Enjolras's severity and dedication as their leader.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Henry Wedler's performance as the lively Gavroche! I've seen professional productions of LES MISERABLES in Chicago, Toronto, and Indianapolis throughout the years, but FWSMT's production did so much more to make the audience fall in love with Gavroche throughout the show. Every moment and interaction between this tiny revolutionary and the other men on stage made me appreciate his character more and more.

BWW Review: Don't miss LES MISERABLES at Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre
Javert (Thom Greving) releases Jean Valjean (Aaron Hawley) for parole in the opening scene of the show. Photo by Alex Leavell.

Other than the unbelievably talented cast, you won't want to miss this show for the scenic design and the lighting. There were so many scenes where I was walloped by the beauty of the image presented on stage, especially due to the care given to the lighting and the actors' blocking. The water-based haze helped make the colorful lighting stand out and bring another element of visualization to each scene, and that barricade in Act Two was a work of art. I've rarely seen such picturesque theatre in this town, and I've seen a lot of theatre.

If you're waffling on coming to the show next weekend, I'll shut down your deliberations right now: SEE IT. See it, or you'll regret it. The caliber of talent on display here is unparalleled.

I already can't wait to see what Fort Wayne Music Theatre has in store for next year, because their future is looking brighter than ever.

The LES MISERABLES production team includes Andrew Sherman as executive director, Kirby A. Volz as producer and co-founder, with music direction by Ben Wedler, assistant direction by Alex Leavell, choreography by Leslie Beauchamp, technical direction by Jacob Ziegler, sound design by Meihkai Bowers, costume design by Kelly Gomes, and stage direction by Kara Tharpe and assistants Evan Snaufer and Forrest Rommel. Their guest vocal clinician was Mindy Cox and their guest fight choreographer was Todd Espeland.

LES MISERABLES STUDENT EDITION's final performances are next weekend on July 30 and 31 at 7:30 p.m., and August 1 at 2:00 p.m. All shows are downtown at the Robert Goldstine Performing Arts Center (University of Saint Francis) located at 431 West Berry Street. Tickets are $15 for students and $18 for adults, and they're available online or at the door. The show does include gunshots, water-based haze, and strobing lights.

Now part of Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation, Inc., the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre has been a staple of Fort Wayne summers since 1999, giving young actors from all across northeast Indiana an opportunity to work with students from other schools and learn from theatre professionals, all while putting together a show in just a few short weeks. You can find out more about the program or about LES MISERABLES on their website or by visiting their Facebook page.

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