Everyone knows that teens and pre-teens are no strangers to angst.
Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts is tapping into those universal emotions as well as its middle school students’ talents to present the musical Les Misérables School Edition, an epic show most often performed by high schools. Director Wendy Duke and music director Nathan Duvuvuei say their cast of 47 has the strong vocal and acting skills to pull off the sung-through musical, as well as a deep understanding of the story’s despair and hope.
Add to that dancing skills: Duke said her artistic vision for the show, which opens Thursday night, was inspired by teacher Sarah Christman’s lyrical dance of fierce abandon that she created for auditions. The chain gang dance, set to the melody Look Down, is the prologue for the show.
Duke said the only middle schools she has found in a YouTube search that have performed the musical were performing arts schools. The student edition is performed throughout the world.
The story, set from 1815-1832 in France, is based on Victor Hugo’s novel about Jean Valjean, who breaks his parole after spending 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving nephew. Valjean is relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert. The fugitive reinvents himself after experiencing a life-altering act of mercy, and eventually becomes swept up in a student-led revolution in Paris.
The musical, with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and original French lyrics by Alain Boublil, was first performed in a Paris sports arena in 1980, moving on to London’s West End in 1985 and Broadway in 1987. Colm Wilkinson starred as Jean Valjean in the original casts of the latter two productions. The Broadway production, which won nine Tonys, closed in May 2003. It was revived on Broadway in 2006 and again in a production that opened Sunday.
In Akron, a group of seventh- grade musical theater kids started campaigning last year to do the show this school year. The group used to come to Duke’s room daily during third period to study their teacher’s musical theater CDs and materials.
Duke made the decision last spring to mount the show. That was before Duvuvuei, the school’s new vocal teacher, came on board for the 2013-2014 school year.
“The very first time I met him [Duvuvuei], I said, ‘Guess what? Let’s do the hardest musical ever!’’ Duke said.
“She said that and I think my eyes got really wide because I thought to myself, ‘This is nonstop singing,’ ” he said. “To have a grasp of what it really takes to do nonstop singing, you’d have to be an exceptional talent as far as the cast goes. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of emotion, especially in this one. The emotional content is off the charts compared to anything else.’’
“Even when it’s supposedly light, it’s still pretty grim,’’ Duke agreed about this tale of the poor, pursued and downtrodden.
Casting was a slow process of discovery, the directors said. Duke designed improvisational exercises to coax specific emotions out of students. She asked the kids to improvise scenes in their own language so she could see the students’ energy levels and how they moved and interacted with each other.
Due to the show's vocal requirements, Duvuvuei had the first say in casting. Changing voices also were a possibility with middle school students.
“We got ’em,’’ Duke said of the strong lead singers/actors needed for the show.
Les Misérables stars eighth-graders Charlie Gruhler as Jean Valjean, Kardierre Allen as Javert, Kate Klika as Fantine, Sabrina Reed as Eponine, Reyna Moran as Madame Thenardier, Memo Diaz-Capt as Thenardier; and seventh-graders Morgan Isabella as Cosette, Jonathan Sommer as Marius and Teddy Mansfield as Enjolras. Young actors also include fourth-graders Jack Kendrick as Gavroche and Anna Clawson (this reporter’s daughter) as Young Cosette; and fifth-grader Nya Blackmon as Young Eponine.
Miller South has altered a key scene, Lovely Ladies, in which the devastated Fantine falls in with prostitutes. In a scene at the docks depicting Fantine’s downfall, the prostitutes have been omitted.
“I personally just cannot have middle school girls act prostitutes. It’s just wrong,’’ Duke said.
Composer Boublil was inspired by the musical Oliver! to create Les Misérables, so Duke liked the idea of substituting an Oliver-like pickpocketing scene. The full instrumental accompaniment to the Lovely Ladies song remains but not the lyrics. The hungry, sick Fantine now walks through the streets of Paris, gets mixed up with pickpockets and is arrested for stealing.
“It’s like a scene of squalor in the city,’’ Duke said. “We call it ‘The Despair of Fantine.’ ”
As the Miller South cast prepared for this production, the directors asked students to stop watching the 2012 movie of Les Misérables starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway. The school’s version is closer to the London production, they said, and features a spare set.
Many of Miller South’s performers learned to sing challenging, conversational-style recitative for the first time. They became comfortable with the flow of the style by living with it for three months of rehearsal.
Gruhler and Allen, who have the largest volume of material, had learned their music independently by January, when rehearsals began. That allowed them to fine-tune with Duvuvuei ways to further their character development through song.
“Both of them learned them so fast — unbelievable, the commitment of those two guys,’’ Duke said.
The teachers agree that it will be hard to top this show.
“There’s nothing that they’ll do from this point forward that will be as much a challenge, I think, as this,” Duvuvuei said. “Thank the Lord they’re in middle school because they don’t even know.”
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.