The Vintage High School production of the musical "Les Misérables" opens Thursday night, March 1, at the Napa Valley Unified School District Auditorium, beginning a 10-show run through next Sunday, March 11.
Mark Teeters, chair of the Vintage High Visual and Performing Arts Department and Director of Choral Music, who is also directing "Les Misérables," began working with the cast and crew of more than 70 students as early as last spring when auditions for the Concert Choir were held.
“Every other year, the Concert Choir turns into a cast and that way they learn in class with me,” said Teeters who directed "Les Misérables" at Vintage 12 years ago in 2006. “The spring prior they audition for the cast. It’s a process.”
About 90 students auditioned to get into the Concert Choir class. Once accepted, they enroll for the fall semester to learn about the characters, study excerpts from the show, and then audition with dance, vocal and acting auditions for each character, right in front of their classmates.
In January, Teeters, a Vintage High Vocal Music Department alumnus, brought the ensemble to the District Auditorium, to start the rehearsals on stage. Daily after-school rehearsals last up to five hours Monday through Friday, and then 12-hour Saturday rehearsals mirror the demands of the show.
“It’s a monumental show with singing from beginning to end,” Teeters said adding that there is no dialogue, the music does not stop. It keeps going from beginning to end. “Technically it’s an opera, which is no small achievement for high school kids. There are no understudies, so I really invest in each character and that one child.”
Based upon the 1862 French historical novel by Victor Hugo, "Les Misérables" examines society, social classes, politics, morals, justice and religion. While the themes are big, through participating in the show the cast members are learning about issues not unlike those of today.
Leading the cast are Clayton D’Angelo (Javert); Diana Gonzalez (Cosette); Kyle Kinkade (Marius); Josh McKee (Jean Valjean); Gilian Meyers (Fantine); Jack Montoro (Thenardier); Melody Neal (Eponine); Hallie Nothmann (Madame Thénardier) and Matthew Wahlers (Enjolras).
Co-director and pianist Liz Amendola works alongside Teeters, as well as Stage Director Frank Varni, who also teaches drama and history at Vintage High School. The production is also supported by a professional orchestra of 11 players, including the pianist.
“Les Misérables,” set in 19th-century France, is a story of survival, sacrifice, dreams, passion, love, and redemption. Translated into multiple languages, the English version features music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. It is one of the world’s longest-running musicals now in its 33rd year. “I Dreamed A Dream,” “On My Own,” “Stars," “Bring Him Home,” and “One Day More” are some of the songs from this Tony award-winning show.
To support multi-dimensional learning, Teeters and Varni supply excerpts of the novel to cast members. Teeters is driven first by the music, and then also the social and historical message that he can teach in his class.
“My students perform the music, with all of that context, and it provides a richness," he said. "It gives them an education that cannot be duplicated, if they were only learning from a textbook. Because they are singing it, and the music is so wonderful, it becomes a vehicle for a higher level of learning. Especially when the kids are up on stage, in the spotlight with a professional orchestra, and all of that.”
When asked about their roles, and any parallels with the messages of the musical that may be prevalent within our society today, the lead cast members were insightful.
McKee, who became involved with music in middle school, discussed his character, Jean Valjean, the protagonist of the work, who is sentenced to prison for stealing a loaf of bread. “He is a man who was given an unfair prison sentence and he knows it. When let go, he basically is branded as a criminal and all he will be known as, is a criminal. After the Bishop shows him compassion, he decides to change his life, eventually he gets caught up with the prison warden who had been chasing him throughout the show and wants justice. In reality, Jean Valjean has changed who he was.”
McKee said that there are many messages in this show, which is why he believes it has been running for so long. “There are so many different plot points and themes you can latch on to and everyone out there can connect with.”
Neal says of her character Eponine, “I love her part. I love how she is very sacrificial, she will give up her own happiness so that the one she loves will be happy. She has a very gentle side.” Ultimately, Neal said that the power of love, and what one is willing to do for love and redemption, what is right and what is wrong, stand out in this show.
Gonzales, who will play the older Cosette, agrees that there is so much love in this musical. “It leaves you weeping, while hopeful. The redemptive power of unconditional love,” she said.
Meyers, set to play Fantine, recognizes in this show, “there’s good and evil in everyone. That’s a really big piece. People do what they think is best in the moment.” She went on to quote from Hugo’s book, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Adding that it is not about your faith, or how you choose to practice, she said, “That’s definitely a theme throughout the show. One side of the stage is evil and one is heavenly.”
Nothmann agrees with the assessment of good versus evil, her character Madame Thénardier is definitely evil and with a soft spot only for her own, birth children.
D’Angelo, describes his character Javert, as an opposing force. “He is the police inspector who chases Jean Valjean throughout the musical. Then a big event happens in the show, and it throws him for a complete loop and he cannot handle it. Seriously, it is an emotional roller coaster.”
Marius is played by Kyle Kinkade, who had never really thought about being involved in vocal music until his freshman year of high school when he became involved by accident and completely fell in love with it. “Not just the cast, but the family that is choir," he said. "This has helped me with character development, not only in school but in life.”
Kinkade also agrees that his character grapples with what is right, what is wrong, what is morally correct. “The biggest message is what’s right and what’s wrong. Sometimes they fail for the right reasons,” D’Angelo added.
Jack Montoro, describes his character Thenardier as “pretty evil, and representative of the decay of a consumerist society.” He went on to explain how this show really revolves around the human condition and how our society and our economic systems impact individuals, “In this particular instance, the French monarchy was accounting for the poorest people. My character invests in the evil in people; he takes their social causes as a joke.”
Enjolras will be played by Matthew Wahlers, who said that his role is, “student leader who kind of is the man in charge behind the student revolution. I remind them that we have a goal in mind. I’d like to think that I’m good. These people were living in bad conditions in the beginning. They think they would be better off dead. The big message is revolt. That is pretty evident in my character. Change is possible if you all work toward a common goal.”
The chorus has a large role in “Les Misérables,” Teeters said. “The chorus is very powerful at telling the story. The ensemble kids are all doing a lot of heavy lifting, there are many other roles and solos. They are all so good at their own roles.” Teeters added that he is proud of and grateful to all of them, as well as the 15 kids that are part of the production crew.
Teeters said he has seen some kids attend school primarily for art, music or athletics, identifying with or feeling safe in those environments. “The arts feed their souls. They can get through the academics. They experience education in a refreshing way. They really shine and work to their highest level. It is a beautiful thing for a teacher.”
For dates, show times and tickets visit vhschoirs.com or call 707-299-2520. Ticket prices are $20 for adults and $10 for children and students 18 and under.