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Review: Young Performers Shine in LES MISERABLES, SCHOOL EDITION at the Tota Music and Theatre Conservatory

"Tota Kids" Give Stellar Performances!

Review: Young Performers Shine in LES MISERABLES, SCHOOL EDITION at the Tota Music and Theatre Conservatory

They call them "Tota Kids."

These are some of the most talented students of all ages who belong to the renowned Tota Music and Theatre Conservatory in Clearwater, where they get to continue, sharpen and shape a superb education in acting, singing and dancing. Led by Roseann Tota, their incomparable teacher and mentor, these are your future movers and shakers in the performing arts world, the best of the best. Seeing them perform always proves a treat. Three years ago, I was honored to review their magical Matilda; their latest foray--LES MISERABLES, SCHOOL EDITION--is even more powerful. Performed in the black box of the new (gorgeous) Tota headquarters, if you want to see the so-bright-you-gotta-wear-shades future, then Tota's LES MISERABLES is a great place to start.

Even with the truncated School Edition, LES MISERABLES (music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Alain Boubil and Herbert Kretzmer) is not an easy show to produce. It boasts a large cast, a deep storyline, shooting deaths, suicide, prostitution, despair, some of the most famous characters and songs in musical theatre history, and a heaviness of theme--both humane and religious--that people wanting to watch a Saturday matinee feel-good throwaway of a young adult show may not be ready for. (If you're seeking a Captain Louie or Dear Edwina, and if Annie turns out to be a bit too intense for your tastes, then this is definitely not the musical for you.) For those who love LES MISERABLES, then the treasures in this no frills production are there.

LES MISERABLES basically showcases two philosophies of the world, both found in the Bible--the dark, oppressive, cold-hearted Old Testament versus the New Testament of grace and forgiveness.

The plot: Jean Valjean, symbolic of the New Testament outlook on life, is a prisoner who sports the most famous inmate numbers in history: 24601. Imprisoned for stealing bread as a youth, he spends nineteen years jailed, only to be set free in a world that wants nothing to do with an ex-con. Thus, he illegally changes his name and becomes a pillar of society, even though the unforgiving Inspector Javert (exemplifying the Old Testament philosophy) is always on his heels. While the cat-and-mouse game of Valjean and Javert is underfoot, other storylines emerge--Valjean's adoption of Cosette; the youthful French students' uprising against an oppressive society ultimately leading to the building of an infamous barricade; and Cosette's love affair with a student, Marius. Add the thieving Thenardier couple, their daughter who also loves Marius, Cosette's doomed mother, Fantine, and the tyke, Gavroche, who seems to have entered the story via a road company of Oliver!, and you have this convoluted but beloved show.

I wondered how this nearly three-hour epic would work in a black box with relatively no set, save for the shards of the French flag that hang overhead. So the barricade, the inn, the Parisian streets, all have to be imagined by the audience.

Three stages--one to our left, one to our right, and one right in front of us--are utilized, and sometimes the viewers uncomfortably strain their necks in order to see key moments that maybe should play out in front of us rather to the side. There's an intimacy in this type of staging, and it's sometimes like watching the show in your very own living room. At times this production comes close to being a concert version of LES MISERABLES. But in the end, all of this is moot. It's about the performers here and the story they are telling, and that's where this production of LES MISERABLES shines. These are some of the most talented kids I have ever seen, and they give the show their all, telling this tale with an abundance of heart, soul, empathy, and so much love. It's heartening to watch and, to me, the fastest three hours that I can recall.

Haydn Kelley is a formidable Valjean. He has the most expressive eyes, world-weary and sad. He comes across larger than life, with so much determination and grit; there an intensity bubbling underneath his every word. Resembling a ragged Robert Walker, he is an incredible talent, carrying the show on his sturdy shoulders. He's also a marvelous vocalist, as showcased in "Who Am I?" and "Bring Him Home," but he must take good care of his voice because, due to performing this behemoth of a show over and over without the aid of microphones (they're not needed here), it can strain the vocal cords when it comes to hitting the big notes.

Valjean's opposite is Inspector Javert, played to the snooty hilt by Andrew Larsen. His face in a constant condescending sneer, his nose up as if he's whiffing rotted cheese at every moment of his life, Larsen's Javert snaps the words out of his mouth like a self-righteous rattlesnake striking a victim. He's the perfect foil for Valjean: While the freed prisoner exemplifies passion and life, Javert has become a statue of repression, of being trapped in a box of his own making, all rules but no feeling. Larsen does justice to his rendition of "Stars," a song that is a blueprint of Javert's unyielding philosophy which also happens to be my favorite song in the show.

As the tragic Fantine, Sahara Seifried is astounding. We feel for her as her life spirals into the depths of despair--she chops off her hair and becomes a prostitute--and her heartbreak becomes our heartbreak. Her version of "I Dreamed a Dream" is stellar, emotional, gut-wrenching. This is a master class by someone who is so young.

Berlin Head, so good as Matilda last decade, continues to show off her tremendous range and likability as Gavroche. (The part is double cast with Mark Helm portraying it in other performances.) Head's an electric performer, her eyes on fire as she narrates the tale halfway through Act 1. And without giving away any spoilers, Gavroche's exit is certainly a memorable one. Head is so good not just in the spotlighted moments but in the side instances, always listening, always reacting. Once again the potential seen in those pre-pandemic days is being realized before our eyes.

Marco Camuzzi is a hammy hoot as the cad, Thenardier, owning his big song "Master of the House," a cad anthem if ever there was one. He has such joy in performing, almost as if a shameless Zero Mostel played the part, and it's infectious. Noah Tolbert sings well and is perfectly cast as the Bishop. Whitaker Allen, a young man with movie star good looks, is appropriately strong as the student leader, Enjolras. Mia George is a suitable Young Cosette (Josie Yanda plays her in other performances). Ethan Treiser in a variety of roles is a powerful presence on stage, a standout. And Grace Niebur has a fine voice and presence in the key role of Eponine.

The beautiful and talented Alana Hogan hits incredible notes as Cosette; she has a sunshine brightness to her persona. As her suitor, Marius, Aiden Bartholomew possesses a likable energy and verve. His emotional "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is one of the great songs about loss ever written. And his duet with Hogan in "A Heart Full of Love" (it becomes a trio when Niebur's Eponine joins in) is simply lovely.

The ensemble and side characters are top-notched: Charlie Vega-Franz, Emilee Scott, Nina George, Maria Halkias, Leanna Harting, Gefen Nardia, Molly Bartholomew, Payton Black, Reese Boggs, Maddie Mennenga, Addison Rowe, Ava Wagoner, and Rachael Hayworth. Special shout outs go to Rebekah McCurtain, Sophia Bryant and Madeline Morgan as being the best of the ensemble, always in character, always the engine that galvanizes the larger scenes. They prove through their talent and command of the stage that ensemble members are just as important as any lead.

My vote for the best of the cast, the one performer who resonated above all others, goes to Bailey Bramer as Madame Thenardier. She is a show-stopper, playing the sultrier side of the character as she flirts with Valjean, and through her dramatic eyes, we constantly see her brain working overtime at whatever scheme she's involved in. She's seeking a better life, and if she can't find it, she'll make your life miserable. It's a fearless performance, unafraid to dive into the darker depths of humanity, playing a down-and-outer who never loses her obnoxious spunk, a slinky vixen gone to seed. She has a punk look to her, like Little Nell in Jubilee, but Bramer makes the part her very own. With spot-on vocals, a characterization that is hilarious and gutsy all at once, this is the performance you take with you, that you never forget.

Much of the kudos for the remarkable performances goes to director Nick Orfanella with his masterly staging. Music director Shaila Ghaneka gets the most out of her young actors, and their harmonies are out-of-this-world terrific, especially in "At the End of the Day" and "One Day More." Elizabeth Morgan's choreography works well especially in "Lovely Ladies," an ode to prostitution, where the envelope is definitely pushed.

Best of all, this LES MISERABLE proudly includes a LIVE BAND. I can't tell you how relieved I was with this news of a live orchestra. It's a tight group, moving the show along at break-neck speed. Musicians include Ms. Ghaneka on piano, Rose Strauser on woodwinds, Bill Schwartzbaugh on bass, and Jim Rungo on drums. It may be a four-piece outfit but it sounded like a dozen musicians were playing.

There are obviously issues in a show of this epic undertaking. Some of the vocalist's voices seemed strained at times. Blackouts were needed, especially when the bodies recently killed get up and walk out of theatre (they do move slowly, like in a zombie world, but it takes the power away from their loss). I like the presentational approach to the runaway cart that's too big for anyone but Jean Valjean to lift: A simple wheel crushing a poor soul. But after Valjean struggles and finally lifts it off the victim, the wheel is soon carted a single girl. Again, this takes us away from the moment (perhaps a group of the ensemble could lift the wheel and put it in its place). The slow motion fight scenes work, and surprising gun shot sounds shook the audience, causing some to even gasp in shock. But we miss the appearance of that barricade, such an important set piece in the story; I wonder if someone who had never experienced the show before knew exactly what was going on in these moments.

Also, since this is the Student Edition of LES MISERABLES, much of the edited moments affect other scenes that remain. For instance, by scrapping Thenardier's failed attempt at robbing Valjean near the end of Act 1 causes the big song, "One Day More," to make less sense. In the original, Valjean, thinking the robbers are Javert and his cohorts, decides to flee. By excising this important scene, there's no motivation for Valjean to be leaving as he begins the famous Act 1 closer, "One Day More." With the script cutting, the show moves incredibly fast, sometimes too fast, like a car on the Autobahn that never slows down. While I will never argue with a fast-paced production, this edited edition of the show doesn't allow us to digest the more serious moments or mourn the loss of a favorite character. It zooms by so rapidly that it sometimes seems like Victor Hugo's greatest work on amphetamines.

Please note: The Sunday matinee of LES MISERABLES, its final showing, is sold out. After the performance I witnessed, the audience leapt to its feet in a deserved standing ovation. We had experienced great performances in a heartbreaking and potent production, all inside a brand new facility. Excitement was in the air, and each of these amazing students proudly delivered a knockout of a show. Then again, what else do you expect from these talented "Tota Kids"?

From This Author - Peter Nason

    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in Washington,... (read more about this author)

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