Young Artists of America presented its annual concert on Saturday, March 16, performing a semi-staged concert version of Les Misérables that featured a large ensemble of performers, chorus members and instrumentalists. Every performer in the production (including the orchestra) was of middle school or high school age from schools across the DC region.
Les Misérables, the hit musical composed by Claud-Michel Schonberg with lyrics and book by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man unjustly imprisoned for a small misdemeanor who spends the rest of his life pursued by Inspector Javert, an overzealous man of the law whose strict beliefs blind him to Valjean’s innocence. Valjean’s story spans many decades of the early 19th century, a time of great political upheaval in France, culminating in Les Miz’s great “barricade” scene in which students and workers rallied to call for a more egalitarian society.
Young Artists of America often tackles difficult subject matters and the students proved, in Les Misérables, as with last year’s production of Ragtime, that young people are able to tackle material involving large and complex societal issues and also to perform the complicated scores that often accompany such musicals.
Several performers stood out in YAA’s production. Noah Ferguson as the Bishop, Ellie Johnson as Fantine, Ellie Coffey as young Cosette and Sitare Sadeghi as Gavroche all displayed strong vocals, as did the impressive array of company performers. Group numbers including “At the End of the Day” allowed numerous group members to have solos and showcased the expansive sound of the onstage orchestra amplified by the beautiful accoustics of the Strathmore’s world-class auditorium.
Julia Laje was appropriately scrappy as the streetwise Eponine. She took full advantage of Eponine’s two solos “On My Own” and “A Little Fall of Rain” to showcase her vocal skills.
Ella Gatlin was perfectly cast in the role of adult Cosette. Gatlin’s beautifully strong soprano voice was well suited to songs such as her duet “A Heart Full of Love” with the talented Spencer Whims as Marius.
Robert Liniak gave an excellent performance as Javert, the humorless police inspector who sees the world in black and white. Indeed, I had a hard time believing that Liniak was still in high school, he so successfully embodied the stoic persona of a middle-aged police inspector with a rich baritone voice and commanding stage presence.
But the true star of the show was Ian Coursey as Jean Valjean. Coursey approached the role with a gravitas that belied his young years, easily filling the stage with his presence and commanding the audience’s attention and respect. The character of Jean Valjean starts out a young man and his journey over many decades forms the narrative arc of Les Misérables. For the show to work, Jean Valjean has to be a figure of moral authority who commands our attention and respect whenever he is onstage. He must also have a stellar voice and a vocal range that can handle several octaves. Coursey excelled in all aspects, enthralling the audience from start to finish. His rendition of “Bring Him Home,” the emotional epicenter of the show, in which an aged Valjean prays for the life of a younger man, was sung with immense tenderness and gravitas. Coursey is a young performer with a great onstage future ahead of him.
Director Kristina Friedgen made sure that the large number of students (at times there were 300 performers onstage, including the orchestra and choruses) were all able to spend some time in the limelight without the large group devolving into chaos. The simple set pieces that were rolled on and off stage were more than adequate in evoking the spirit of revolutionary France. Projections at the back of the stage also helped to convey the spirit of the show. YAA was lucky to secure the skills of projection designer Dominic Grijalva who is known to DC audiences for designing the projections in the recent Kennedy Center production of In the Heights. His sepia-toned drawings helped orient audiences in time and place in a show that moves through several decades.
Kristofer Sanz conducted the large onstage orchestra and company Founder Rolando Sanz oversaw the production, directing the YAA company. In a special moment that the students are sure to remember, Sanz arranged for Samantha Barks, the Broadway star who played Eponine in the 2012 film version of Les Misérables to submit a video to the students just before they went onstage. In the video, Barks answers the students’ questions about her career and about Les Misérables.
Young Artists of America’s production of Les Misérables proves once again that this company is at the forefront of training the next generation of musical theater artists and musicians in the Washington, DC area.
Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, including a fifteen-minute intermission.
Les Misérables in Concert by Young Artists of America performed on Saturday, March 16, 2019, at the Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For more information on Young Artists of America, go online.
Note: The performers in this production of Les Misérables included Young Artists of America’s YAA company, YAA orchestra, YAA junior company, and the Seneca Valley High School Choruses.
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