Whether it’s toiling in a chain gang, getting pickpocketed in a lowlife inn or fighting with hopeless courage on a Parisian barricade, the swirling onstage action and musical fanfare of Les Miserables would keep any company of actors and techs busy with the breakneck scene changes alone—much less a troupe of aspiring teenage performing artists, who take on the singing, dancing, emoting roles of principal and supporting characters, besides making up the ever-changing, ever-active chorus.
But backed by a full orchestra, 15 musicians under the familiar hand of Dave Malloy (Shotgun Players, Ten Red Hen, CalShakes), the players of Youth Musical Theater Company trouped through the tumultuous epic that frames both inspirational and love stories, learning about becoming an ensemble in the process, perhaps the greatest triumph any band of actors can experience—to be a company.
One of the clearest examples came near the conclusion, when Marius, wounded in the streetfighting, but saved by constantly self-sacrificing Jean Valjean, returns to the cafe where he joined the insurrection, singing mornfully as he sees, in his mind’s eye, his dead comrades make a silent uproar in their old haunts, just as they did before being sacrificed in the 1832 Revolution—the event that inspired Victor Hugo to write his historical romance, as well as Stendhal’s conception of what many consider the first modern novel, The Red and the Black.
(Though the story of Les Miserables is remembered more for Jean Valjean, who changes his life when a priest he’s stolen from intercedes with the police to save him, and the implacable figure of Inspector Javert, ever dogging Valjean’s footsteps to catch him when he falls, it’s worth saying that Hugo is credited with writing the first books with titles naming masses, not individuals, as subject: Les Miserables, Toilers of the Sea ... )
Opening night was a sell-out at the Julia Morgan Center, alive with the excitement of family and friends and the fervor of the cast. Some of the YMTC players are off to university in a few weeks, but even a few of those may be back to audition in late March for next summer’s show, Mothers of Ludlow, the premiere of a new musical. The Les Miserables cast of 31 includes seventh-graders through college sophomores.
(The next YMTC production is A Chorus Line, opening Oct. 16 at the Julia Morgan, like other YMTC mainstage shows.)
Founded in 1997, as Youth Musical Theater Commons (formerly Middle School Musical Theater), YMTC acquired its present name along with nonprofit status in 2004. The continuity of the program and dedication of its young performers can be judged by the participation of Simone Kertesz, playing tragic, exploited Fantine, who—dying—exhorts Valjean to care for her little girl, Cosette, the role that Simone, now a sophomore at Chico State, performed in 2003 when YMTC first essayed Les Miserables.
Introduced at the start, when Javert admonishes Jean Valjean as a prisoner not to forget him, Jordan Anderson, a senior at Berkeley High and a five-show YMTC veteran, and Tomas Moreno-Johnson, a Lick-Wilmerding senior, cut good figures onstage in their roles, Moreno-Johnson singing sweetly in the higher registers, the quieter numbers.
As the romantic ingenues Cosette and Marius, Sofia Christensen (a Berkeley High senior in her sixth YMTC show) and David Crane (a UCLA sophomore) have much presence, Crane having the voice of a stage singer. Marnina Wirtschafter (a Berkeley High junior, whose third YMTC production will be A Chorus Line) pumps out her breaking heart as Eponine, hopelessly in love with Marius, and Dorothy Gray (a junior at Albany High) flashes a wicked grin, missing a tooth, as Mme. Thenardier. (Gray notes that, after playing an insane granny in Into the Woods last year, she can’t decide if the abusive mother in Les Miserables is a step up or down.)
Gabe Hermann (a freshman at American River College) plays the factory foreman who mistreats Fantine with appropriate menace, but it’s Jacob Basri (Sarah Lawrence freshman and seven-time YMTC player) who has the plum role as comic villain Thenardier (alternating with Berkeley High sophomore Alex Senauke)—and makes the most of it, stepping into “Master of the House” with a funny, snaky walk between a slink and a strut, leering and picking pockets when nobody but the audience is watching—a charming ogre to offset the stiff uprightness of antagonist Javert.
Yet, again, it’s the kaleidoscopic chorus that gives Les Miserables its substance and its tone, as a face or two surfaces, disappears, and comes around again, playing a different role—Hugo’s seemingly anonymous crowd, the ensemble of young actors, backed by a cadre of adult volunteers, that puts the story over with their excitement and hard work, not (as YMTC artistic director Jennifer Boesing, who directed Les Miserables, points out) in spite of their youth, but because of it.
Youth Musical Theater Company
8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Julia Morgan Center for the Arts
2640 College Ave.