On Theater: No misery watching academy's 'Les Miserables'

Over the years, the student performers of the Academy for the Performing Arts at Huntington Beach High School have taken on some formidable challenges, but never one quite so daunting as "Les Miserables." Until now, that is.

Tim Nelson, who functions as director and musical director of the program, has chosen the greatest of all musicals for his school's spring production. And the results are impressive.

Adapted 25 years ago from the classic Victor Hugo novel, "Les Miserables" spans a three-decade period of French history to document an 1832 peasant uprising in Paris that turned bloody. The musical version blends unflagging dedication to principle with raucous, blatant ribaldry and heartfelt, blossoming romance.

Nelson's version is billed as the "school edition," yet its differences from the four professional productions I've witnessed are exceedingly minimal. It's every bit as demanding on vocal and dramatic talents as a touring rendition in a major theater, and the language hasn't been softened for student consumption.

Some of the vocalizing is, in fact, superb. Elizabeth Romero's Fantine, the doomed factory worker turned prostitute who renders the popular "I Dreamed a Dream" early in the first act, draws particular applause, as does the strident anthem "Stars" by Devin Cortez, who plays the single-minded Inspector Javert.

As the object of Javert's determined manhunt, Jacob Gonzales enriches the role of Jean Valjean with a smoothly polished vocal presence and a stage wisdom far beyond his years. His high-pitched solo "Bring Him Home" in the shadow of the barricades in the second act is a particular highlight.

Both Mary Frances Conover as the young Cosette — the orphan girl adopted by Valjean — and Adrianna Gregory as her grown counterpart impress with their vocal quality (they're double-cast with Cat Sacksteder and Tamara Mendoza, respectively). Caden Michael Gray presents a stalwart Marius, who's smitten by the older Cosette.

Lauren Judson is particularly appealing as Eponine, the street urchin who pines for Marius (she alternates with Allie Boyce), and scores highly with her aching solo "On My Own." Garrett Brown projects a dedicated Enjolras, leader of the street rebellion.

The raunchy comedy of the Thenardiers — the grasping, vicious couple who lurk in the shadows awaiting larcenous opportunities — is particularly well played by Zack Carlson and Amanda Hinchee (who alternates with Tayler Hayes). They are, however, a bit too hygienic to be totally physically effective.

The demanding ensemble activity in this sprawling production is splendidly handled by choreographer Diane Makas, working with a rich, full-bodied student orchestra under the baton of Gregg Gilboe. Courtney Suter-Gilio's costumes, Max Weisenberger's lighting designs and Randy Stevens' sound effects complete the rich, atmospheric picture.

Few stage productions, musical or otherwise, offer the immense power and passion of "Les Miserables," and the version mounted by the academy stands as a tribute to the talent and dedication of these highly ambitious young people.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Independent.

If You Go

What: "Les Miserables"

Who: Academy for the Performing Arts

Where: Huntington Beach High School Auditorium, 1905 Main St.

When: Closing performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $15 to $20

Information: (714) 536-2514, ext. 4025 or http://www.hbapa.org

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