“Do you hear the people sing?” This weekend, you could hear an impressive group of young people sing the music of the juggernaut musical “Les Miserables,” as the Young Artists of America presented their Spring performance at Strathmore’s Music Center.
The Youth Artists of America program is a prestigious local performing arts training program for students in 6th-12th grade. This not-for-profit organization provides both educational training and performance opportunities for young people in acting, as well as vocal and instrumental music. Students from the entire Mid-Atlantic region participate in after-school sessions where they work with mentors who are professionals in their fields, and students come from all over, even internationally, to participate in the organization’s summer intensive programs.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed by this program, and the young people who obviously pour their hearts and souls, and not to mention hours of work, into these performances.
The program is divided up into three primary groups: YAACompany, YAAOrchestra, and YAAjunior. The junior program consists of the pre-high school students, while the YAACompany is made up of the high-school vocalist/acting students and the YAAOrchestra are the high-school instrumentalists. Each year, the groups present several performances to allow the students to show off the skills that they work so hard to cultivate. The YAAjunior group has a yearly show of their own, the summer intensive groups perform three final performances, and the three primary groups present two fully orchestrated, main-stage productions each year, one of which I had the pleasure of seeing this Saturday.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last 35 years, you’ve heard of the musical “Les Miserables.” It is based on Victor Hugo’s epic novel of the same name, first published in 1862. Adapted into an incredibly successful 2012 film, “Les Miz,” as it’s often called for short, is ostensibly the story of Jean Valjean (Ian Coursey). The musical opens with him being paroled after 19 years on a chain gang for the simple crime of stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister’s starving son. When he decides to break his parole after a kindly bishop (Noah Ferguson) gives him the means to start a new life, he becomes the focus of constable Javert (Robert Liniak,) who sees the world of justice in only black and white.
The story flash-forwards several years and now Valjean has a new name and has risen to mayor of a small town, and is also a respected factory owner. One of his employees, Fantine (Ellie Johnson) is thrown out after it is discovered that she is supporting a daughter that she has had out of wedlock and sent to live with innkeepers in another town. After prostituting herself to earn money to send to her daughter, Valjean finds her and takes pity on her, as she is now dying. However, his true identity is discovered after promising Fantine to care for her child, and he flees with Javert on his heels. He finds Cosette (Ellie Coffey) being neglected by her guardians, the Thenardiers (Olivia Luzquinos and Saidou Sosseh,) and pays them a handsome sum to whisk her away.
Ten more years pass and the setting moves to Paris. There is unrest in the streets as the poor are increasingly neglected by the government and the bourgeoisie, and a group of students begin to speak of revolution. One of these is the handsome Marius (Spencer Whims,) who falls for the now grown-up Cosette (Ella Gatlin) at first sight. This is wounding to Eponine (Julia Laje), who loves Marius and dreams of a better life with him. As Valjean’s true identity is threatened to be exposed yet again, Enjolras (Ian Berlin) rallies the students to fight at the barricade. Will Valjean be caught? Who will survive the revolution? I won’t spoil the story here; if you want to find out, I strongly recommend watching a recording or seeing the show- it’s a seminal work of musical theatre that should not be missed.
I am pleased to report that I saw performances in this show that rivaled some of the professional theatre that I have experienced. As a complete production, it was cohesive and massively enjoyable; the first act clocks in at nearly 2 hours, but flew by and when the show was over, it left the audience of over 1600 people wanting more. Coursey very ably carried this production on his shoulders, which is incredible since this part is notoriously difficult, even for seasoned adult performers. His voice spanned the rich baritone notes all the way up to the soaring falsetto of “Bring Him Home;” it was inspiring. Liniak was also astonishing as the nemesis of the piece, Javert. As with Coursey, not only was his voice rock solid, but he infused his performance with real authenticity. His performance of “Stars” was a beautiful moment where Javert’s mindset is presented to the audience and made for a bitter pairing for his later, equally poignant song after that world view has been shattered. Johnson and Laje both give nuanced and tragic performances of doomed women Fantine and Eponine. These actresses provided compelling interpretations of women who suffered awful things with sensitivity and truth, and their vocals were both technically stunning and emotional.
This is also true of Whims, whose performance of “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” brought tears to this reviewer’s eyes. Luzquinos and Sosseh had lovely voices, but those were almost overshadowed by their epic comedic chops. Group numbers “Do You Hear the People Sing” and “One Day More” were show highlights, made especially powerful due to the fact that the entire group of performers (over 300 students) was included in them. However, the most impressive performer to this reviewer was Gatlin. Her ethereal and perfect soprano seems effortless. I have seen three other productions of “Les Miserable,” all professional, and hers is by far the best that I’ve heard, hands down.
I was also quite impressed by the orchestral performers, consisting of 60 student instrumentalists. This score is not for the faint of heart and is especially challenging rhythmically. The orchestra, under the expert direction of Artistic Director, Music Director and co-founder of YAA Kristofer Sanz, handled these orchestrations sublimely, and also were successfully able to pair with the live vocals; no easy feat. The other founder of YAA is Sanz’s brother, Rolando, both of whom were raised locally.
Not only does the Young Artists of America program provide excellent performance training and opportunities for these gifted students, but they also offer some assistance as they move on to college. At the end of Saturday’s performance, there were several scholarships awarded to graduating seniors who will be pursuing arts degrees.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed by this program, and the young people who obviously pour their hearts and souls, and not to mention hours of work, into these performances. After seeing them perform, this reviewer thinks the future of the arts in our area, and beyond, looks pretty bright.
While “Les Miserables in Concert” was a one-day-only engagement, click here for upcoming performance information.