The Pagosa Springs High School production of Les Misérables is a testament of the importance of arts education.
Les Miz is a world-famous, complicated and difficult production. Its sung through like an opera and requires a wide vocal range for most of the key roles, of which there are many: Jean Valjean, Javert, Cosette, Marius, Fantine, Eponine, Thenardier and Madame Thenardier, Gavroche thats just a few of the nearly 70 parts listed in the cast list.
While the school edition cuts material from the original and divides it into 30 scenes, making a few subtle changes in pitch to the major solos, its still not a production for the faint of heart or vocal skill. Which is why the PSHS production is so impressive. Its far from flawless, but the level of talent available in a high school of 500 students continually renews my belief in the power and importance of arts education. Most of these teens have been performing in community productions for 10 years, exposed to being on stage, singing and dancing most of their lives. Its no wonder they were able to pull it off.
It also helps that the first American actor to play Jean Valjean just happens to own a mountain retreat in Chromo, just south of town. Gary Morris sings the part of Jean Valjean on the Complete Symphonic Recording and took over for Colm Wilkinson for a six-month run on Broadway in 1987. He hasnt performed the part since 1991, but his coaching during a master class he gave a few weeks before opening night provided the students with crisp, clean pronunciations and perhaps some vocal techniques, as well.
There are some noteworthy performances in the Pagosa production. Samantha Hunts as Fantine makes I Dreamed a Dream her own song. She was not just mimicking other voices, other performances, but rather gave it her own signature sound, and it was beautiful. I heard a little of Morris in Max Millers falsetto and was thoroughly entertained by Elliott Harwood and Zoe Fulco as Thenardier and Madame Thenardier. They truly stole the show for a moment with The Innkeepers Song.
Kaitlen Richeys beautiful soprano shined in her role as Cosette. Even minor players showed huge stage presence and vocal quality, Laith Scherer as a drunken soldier may have sipped a bit too often from his cask, but he filled the stage whenever he appeared and stood out during the ABC Cafe scene with Red and Black.
Hayley Hudson projected strong sex appeal in her lovely lady role, and I found myself listening for Charisse Morris mezzo-soprano in her minor parts. Hunts as Fantine and Riley Searle as Marius were poignant and powerful during Fantines death scene. And Robert Neel as Javert made the mental agony of the law mans suicide real.
Les Misérables is my favorite musical. I actually saw Gary Morris perform in the Broadway production in 1987. And Ive seen multiple touring and recorded versions. I know all the words to every song and was a bit apprehensive that a student production would leave me disappointed. It did not. I laughed. I cried. I never once checked my watch to see what time it was or shifted bored in my seat. These kids and the community of parents, helpers and musicians from the orchestra nailed it. It was entertaining, powerful and redemptive. It was uplifting. It was everything one wants in a night of musical theater.
The experience was possible because Victor Hugo wrote a great novel. And Alain Boublil got the idea to adapt that novel into a musical while at a performance of Oliver. And Claude-Michel Schönberg wrote the score, and then Herbert Kretzmer and James Fenton adapted that material to create an English version. And Cameron Mackintosh and Trevor Nunn brought it all to life on stage in London, and it came to America and was revised yet again for Broadway.
Its because of all of this that today, nearly 50 students from a small town in Southwest Colorado can be inspired by the history of the French Revolution, can come to understand the challenges of law and grace, the meaning of family and love.
Leanne Goebel is a freelance writer and member of the International Association of Art Critics. Reach her at artsjournalist @mac.com.