Les Misérables School Edition: Scaled Down Performance is No Less Sensational
by Ted Mahne
We could leave it at just that, but this only begins to describe the delights that the Jesuit Philelectic Society’s production of Les Misérables School Edition holds for its audiences. The culmination of a year celebrating the centennial of the organization’s name, the spring musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic tale is, quite simply, the finest production I have seen on the Jesuit stage.
When it arrived more than a quarter century ago, Les Misérables proved to be a game changer. It signaled a new era in the British invasion of Broadway, a blitz that would command the American theater scene with mega-sized productions of pop-operatic musicals known more for their special effects than their songs.
Rights for outside productions were slow to come but that hardly mattered. Such shows seemed nearly impossible for and smaller theater group to tackle. Limitations of space, not to mention budgets, would preclude such leviathans from even fitting on most local stages.
With its production, however, director Kate Arthurs-Goldberg and her creative team present not only a well-adapted, technically proficient staging, but one that gets to the true heart of the work. Though scaled down and without a giant turntable or massive, mechanically driven barricade, this production firmly sets the focus on the characters and the music. It remains epic in scope while centering on an intimate story of love and loss, crime and punishment, forgiveness and redemption.
Hugo’s well-known tale was adapted by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. The elaborate plot focuses on Jean Valjean, a Frenchman imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. After breaking his parole, he is hunted across decades by the persistent police inspector, Javert. In between comes a revolution and a population of colorful characters—sinister villains, waifs and orphans, golden-hearted prostitutes, idealistic students, and, of course, young lovers.
Sung through with essentially no spoken dialogue, it all could become just too much melodrama. However, when its many elements come together as beautifully as they do on the Jesuit Auditorium stage, the heightened emotions wash across the audience enveloping it in the moment with sweeping grandeur, as well as an intimacy that brings each character vividly to life.
Les Misérables rises or falls on the strengths of the actors portraying Jean Valjean and Javert. In this, Arthurs-Goldberg achieved two of the best pieces of casting possible.
Junior Andrew Busenlener is a commanding Valjean. From the opening prologue establishing the story, he releases a driving passion. His powerful voice bears an intensity that never lets up. He also shapes the development of the character with a keen understanding that belies his age. As Valjean ages, Busenlener grows even more mature in the role. Perhaps his finest moment comes with the prayerful, heartfelt soliloquy, “Bring Him Home.” This is a star-making performance.
With a stentorian voice and authoritative stage presence, senior Jared Larriviere is a rock-solid Javert. He succeeds in the role because he does not play the police inspector as the evil villain, but as a deeply committed, though misguided, man. In his rendition of “Stars,” Larriviere unpacks the psychological depth of the role.
Senior Jordan Kelley and NOCCA sophomore Carlie Goodlett are picture perfect as the lovers Marius and Cosette. Although Cosette is an underwritten role, Goodlett gives her a crystalline soprano that is pure and lovely. Together, she and Kelley present a palpable feeling of the exuberance of youthful love. Kelley brings a fine voice to stage, rich and filled with emotion. He is notable in bringing precise nuance to the musical’s most intimate and reflective moments, such as in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” in which he confronts his own survivor’s guilt after the attack on the barricades.
New to the Phils, NOCCA junior Nicolette Sigur is heartbreaking as Fantine. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” one of the show’s biggest breakout hits, is just beautiful.
Junior Blaise Bonura and Lauren Haefele, a junior at the Academy of Sacred Heart, are rousing as the comically vulgar Thénardiers, providing ample comic relief.
Homeschooled senior Riley Tafaro brings a ringing voice and feisty characterization to Éponine. Her death scene is one of many for which audience members should have handkerchiefs at the ready.
In other smaller but key roles, junior John Howell is the dignified and compassionate Bishop of Digne. His brief scene with Busenlener in the prologue encapsulates the key theme of the entire show, one man’s struggle with his own conscience and striving for redemption. Eighth grader Carter Morris vividly makes his mark as the spunky Gavroche, singing and acting with bold flair. Senior Edward Medina is effective as the leader of the rebelling students, Enjolras. With a commanding voice, his call to arms has the audience ready to rise up with him.
With one of the largest casts ever assembled on the Phils’ stage, even the smallest roles in the ensemble create distinct and detailed characterizations. In that regard, although Les Misérables is not a big dance show, choreographer Kenny Beck ’79 fills the stage with stylized movement and paints lovely tableaux creating compelling images. The waltz of the second act wedding scene is nicely done, led by senior Matthew O’Neill and Isidore Newman senior Ellanor Patton.
Overall, this first-class production looks as sumptuous as it sounds. Set designs and lighting under technical director Ron Goldberg are elaborate and functional. Costumes by Dee Allen and Julie Winn are from the top drawer and true to the period. Senior Jamal Jordan commands the hard-working backstage crew as stage manager.
Conductor Jason Giaccone leads the backstage orchestra through the unremitting score with precision and grace. The orchestra drives the big ensemble pieces (“Do You Hear the People Sing,” “One Day More”) with rousing bombast and the quieter moments with gentle serenity. A good balance of sound is maintained throughout between the orchestra and the singers.
With its thunderous score and unbridled emotions, Les Misérables pushes every emotional button. This fine production proves its power and cuts to the core of its universal truths about the nobility of the human heart and soul.
A faculty member with the Theology Department, Ted Mahne also is the dean of New Orleans theater writers, serving as the chief theater critic for The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com.
Adult – $15 advanced purchase / $20 at the door
Student – $10 advanced purchase / $15 at the door
Show Dates & Times
- Friday, April 7 @ 7:30 PM
- Saturday, April 8 @ 2:00 PM (matinee)
- Saturday, April 8 @ 7:30 PM