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Review: Patel Conservatory's LES MISERABLES, SCHOOL EDITION at the TECO Theater

I was at first concerned when I heard that a "school edition" had been created from the mammoth (adult) musical, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's LES MISERABLES. Nightmares of pre-teen girls joyously singing the prostitute anthem, "Lovely Ladies," filled my head. Why stop at a school edition of LES MISERABLES? Why not a Junior edition of Hair or The Book of Mormon? Watching grammar-school kids singing "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" from the former or "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" from the latter doesn't seem that far off the mark, does it?

But when I viewed the LES MISERABLES, SCHOOL EDITION a few years ago at Blake High School and again just last night at the Patel Conservatory, I realized that my fears were not well founded. It's not at all like watching the notorious urchins-performing-Sweeney Todd sequence from the movie Jersey Girl, or some kindergarten class covering "La Vie Boheme" from Rent, or a group of Cub Scouts crooning "The Bitch of Living" from Spring Awakening. Here are students of various ages, taking the work utterly seriously, striving to bring the classic story of redemption to life, and learning about the stage, vocal work, and acting techniques in the process. Yes, it can be a bit alarming hearing teenagers sing lines like, "Poor men, rich men, leaders of the land, see them with their trousers off, they're never quite as grand." But you get used to it, especially when so much incredible, jaw-dropping talent is being showcased on the stage.

There are plusses and minuses with this version of LES MISERABLES. The good news is that the school edition is fast paced and the quickest interpretation of the Hugo novel you'll ever encounter outside of Cliff Notes; the bad news is that several key moments have been excised (including "Confrontation" and some of the lyrics to "Stars," my favorite song in the show). So we get brevity in lieu of depth. The show moves but is not as emotionally moving as the full-length production. It's easier on our gluteus maximi but not as fulfilling to our collective minds.

When watching the Patel Conservatory Theater Department's production, we realize that the story and music of LES MISERABLES is only a part of why we are there. We are also present to see some of the most talented local students (ages 8 to 19) perform one of the more difficult shows with only four week preparation, and to pull all of this off with aplomb.

Some of the performers in this production are beyond incredible. If you ever worry about our state of the world, then fear no more. These talented teens will give you hope in anything, especially the future of musical theater.

Taylor Tveten as Fantine gives a charged, heartbreaking, professional performance. It is rare that a teenager understands the doomed Fantine's depth and despair, her fall and her grace. This is where Ms. Tveten is just sensational. Not just her impeccable vocals, but the emotions and yearnings behind those vocals (what's the good of a great voice if there's no emotion behind it?). She made "I Dreamed a Dream" sound new to me. Sometimes I worry that heaping such praise on so young a performer can backfire, can maybe horribly inflate the individual's young ego, but I must be honest in my assessment, and Tveten heads the cast with maturity, poise and empathy. I can't wait to see what her future holds.

Playing Fantine's opposite in temperament is Harrison Mootoo as the rascal innkeeper, Thenardier. Some people may take issue with his crazily foppish interpretation of the role, because it is different than in the novel, but when you are as scene-stealing and knee-slapping hilarious as Mootoo in the part, who cares? His "Master of the House" is the showiest song in the production, and one of the best. And when he and his wife, Madame Thenardier (a wonderfully wicked Micah Livestay) side-step the police at one point later on, it's very funny. And his last number, "Beggars at the Feast," is a perfect laugh-out-loud number to end on. Randy, ribald, hilariously hammy, this Thenardier seems to be possessed by the spirit of Jerry Lewis or Nathan Lane. I like how the scoundrel picks up every piece of money after "The Waltz of Treachery," and he laughs like a very scary Joker. Mootoo may play the part as a fop, but it's a fop who jolts the show to life whenever he's onstage.

As Enjolras, Christian Meany is quite commanding. When he sings "Do You Hear the People Sing," you want to join his army of students. He's spellbinding. As the romantic center of the show, Kevin Lisske's Marius and Alondra Rios' Cosette make a lovely couple. They sing extraordinarily well in all of their songs, especially "A Heart Full of Love." And as Eponine, the sad-sack who swoons for Maurius, Teresa Tomkins is perfectly cast. Her looks, her acting, and her singing are all Grade-A, and she stands as one of the strongest in the cast. She does quite well in her big song, "On My Own."

It took me a long time to warm up to Bailey Walman's Jean Valjean and Daniel Lennox's Javert. Although a teenager, Walman looks much older here (with a graying goatee) and has a ton of potential, but he doesn't come across as the type of strong-willed character that carries the entire show on his back. He seems to recede into the background rather than stand front and center as God's messenger of hope and redemption. He sings well enough, but I felt that he really came into his own during Act 2. His "Bring Him Home" is nicely performed (it has always been one of the most beautiful numbers in musical theater history), and his last scene, where he is dying, is full of feeling and meaning. You really sense that the young actor has been slowly finding himself as a performer here. Maybe it just took him awhile to get into the skin of one of musical theatre's greatest roles. Since I saw him on opening night, he will more than likely get stronger and stronger as the run continues.

Lennox possesses a fine voice that sometimes screams too much in his role of Javert. My issue is that he doesn't come across as imposing or intimidating as the part needs to be. Javert is Old Testament rigid, and he cannot accept the changing world that the New Testament represents. It doesn't help that some of the key songs and scenes are cut short in the school edition. Javert's description of how he grew up and why he is the way he is, usually sung when he's face to face with Valjean, is cut here. And his main song, "Stars," is shortened. Because of the truncation or editing of these numbers, it's hard to get a feel for Javert if you don't already know the show. Lennox is obviously a major talent, but I would like to see more lethal coldness, more frightening intimidation, whenever he enters the stage. He needs to relish in his power until his ultimate undoing. When he walks on stage, you not only want the other characters to freeze in their tracks by his presence, but the audience too.

The ensemble provides some incredibly strong harmonies. "At the End of the Day," "Look Down," the latter part of "Drink With Me" and the underrated "Turning" all sound glorious. "One Day More," which may be the best song of the show, still provides chills (it's beautifully sung and staged here). Unfortunately, a mother was taking her child to the restroom at just the wrong time during the beginning of this number and had to dodge the entire cast as they were appearing on the stage. (You wanted to tell her to wait, that this was the last song of Act 1, but they ran across stage as fast as they could.) This threw one character off a bit, who garbled a lyric momentarily, but the cast was so professional they didn't let this moment throw them. They kept on going, and the song was thrilling. If I were their director, I would have been prouder here than in any other time.

The entire ensemble is quite strong, but special mention must be given to the following ensemble members who stood out during their various numbers, proving that it does not matter the size of a part. These girls were always in character, always owning the stage in every moment they appeared: Emma Devine, Sarah Duren, Meghan Leger, and Olivia Speer.

The stage at the Patel Conservatory is not large, so it takes great creativity to stage a blockbuster musical like LES MISERABLES on it. The director Suzanne Livesay must be commended for a job well done. Her staging is imaginative, lively. I like how she'll sometimes have cast members on an overheard broken bridge, hovering above the stage like gargoyles at Notre Dame. There are 42 cast members, and not a lot of space, but it never seemed too crowded, everyone moving about like an intricate puzzle. The orchestra sounded quite good, headed by music director Kavanaugh Gillespie. Nicole Sharp's costumes worked wonderfully, and Hans Thompson's well-utilized set houses wooden shards that create the impression of a barricade. I like how various items seemed to float overhead. Joe Oshry's lighting was quite strong, especially when the spotlight slowly disappears, along with Fantine's dreams, in "I Dreamed a Dream." And the gun fire in Act 2 looked excruciatingly real and startling; so effective it knocked me out of my seat.

Eponine's blood patch seemed more like she spilled Pepto Bismal on her shirt; it did not resemble real blood. There were some minor microphone issues on opening night, and after the tragedy at the barricade, I wish we could spend more time with the fallen students (the music calls for it), rather than have Valjean carry Marius during this time. I know in the original, while the "Bring Him Home" music plays, they would turn the barricade a full 360 degrees around, each of the dead posed dramatically in their final position. Here, they could use spotlights to showcase each of the massacred students, so that we mourn the loss even more. This is where the show sometimes goes too fast. But these are all nitpicks; the production itself is wonderful from a tech standpoint, thanks to technical director Garrett Brown.

You will be moved by this LES MISERABLES. Yes, by the story, but more for the terrific young cast. It's exciting to see these students blossom onstage. We are witnessing the birth of something great--kids whose lives will be changed forever due to this experience. Who knows, maybe a few or more than a few will go onto to great things in the performing arts. And if that's the case, you can always say, "Hey, I first saw them years a school edition of LES MISERABLES. And look at them now. On Broadway!"

Patel Conservatory's LES MISERABLES, SCHOOL EDITION runs at the TECO Theatre (at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts) until July 17th.

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