Of all elements of society hit by the pandemic, the one that got hit the hardest was the performing arts. Many theatre companies were forced to close their doors while those that managed to survive were crippled by 16 months of inactivity and decimated budgets. Young Artists Ensemble has not only been a growth culture for local talent for 40 years, it has never shied away from a challenge and while other companies were subsisting on shows with small casts, YAE was determined to stage the Student Edition of “Les Miserables,” the larger-than-life 1985 Broadway masterpiece, for its annual teen summer musical.
The show was originally slated for 2020 but with the support of the Conejo Recreation and Parks District, YAE executive producer Scott Buchanan, producer Megan McDonough and director Mark Andrew Reyes decided to stick to their original plan and put it on as soon as restrictions were lifted. The sterling results of their efforts took place at the Scherr Forum Theatre in the Bank of America Performing Arts Center July 29 to August 1.
The audiences that gave YAE’s “Les Miserables” lengthy standing ovations didn’t do so because they were starved for entertainment. YAE’s amazing cast delivered superior performances on all levels, headed by the remarkable Joah Ditto as novelist Victor Hugo’s heroic petty thief Jean Valjean. We first saw Ditto five years ago, then 12, in a bit part as an Emerald City guard in YAE’s “The Wizard of Oz,” but his extraordinary talent showed even then. Since that time he has blossomed into a star and his first-rate, emotionally rich portrayal is already worthy of attention from professional theater companies.
Ditto’s wasn’t the only impressive performance. “Les Miserables” features show-stopping numbers for no less than 10 major characters and Reyes’ cast nailed each of those parts. Playing opposite Ditto was Gannon Hays as the relentless Inspector Javert. Like Ditto, Hays has also risen through the ranks as an actor and delivered a solid performance, excelling on his two soaring solos, “Stars,” and “Javert’s Soliloquy,” both of which humanize his character and make the audience understand his single-minded devotion to duty.
Aran Denis, who played the tragically loyal Eponine, gave as stirring a performance of “On My Own” as anyone we’ve ever heard perform the song, professional or amateur. Even to those who have seen the show dozens of times, Denis’s performance brought tears to the eyes. She was that good.
Not to be ignored were other outstanding performances from Eliza Byrnes, as a particularly impassioned Fantine, Caleigh Moreno as the sweet-natured Cosette, Daniel Roth as the idealistic Marius, Drake Munson and Violet Kaltman as the outrageously opportunistic Thenardiers, and Tyler Luff as Enjolras, the charismatic leader of the youthful revolutionaries. Of special note was a terrific performance by young Gisele Renee Russell as the precocious street urchin Gavroche.
Because of budgetary restraints, a decision was made not to use traditional 19th century French costumes. Instead, costume designer Cindy Peltola used a mixture of the actors’ own clothing brought in from home accented by other modern touches, with the wildest outfits belonging to Munson and Kaltman as the Thernardiers, who were garbed in bright green and gold silk, rainbow-hued footwear, and, for Munson, a punk counterculture fishnet shirt. Even with contemporary sartorial flairs, the show did not suffer, due to its universal messages of love, compassion and sacrifice, which are relevant to any era.
The show’s majestic, soaring score demands a full orchestra, and here, YAE didn’t disappoint. Under the able baton of Susan Treworgy Calkins, the upstage 20-piece orchestra ran the gamut of emotions inherent in the original orchestrations, from Valjean’s plaintive hymn, “Bring Home Home” to the rousing anthem “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Vive le YAE!