'Les Miz School Edition' goes to head of its class

Families that grew up with musical theater over the last 25 years will instantly recognize the face on the large banner over the doors at the Laurel Mill Playhouse. It is Emile Bayard's illustration of the waif Cosette from Victor Hugo's French novel, "Les Misérables." She has become the world-famous icon of the epic musical of the same title.

In this case, the banner is flying over the Laurel Mill Playhouse's youth production "Les Misérables School Edition." It runs a full half-hour shorter than the original show by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.

This student version has been reworked into 30 scenes, with subtle changes in vocal pitch designed for performers under the age of 19. But it deftly avoids cutting anything critical from the show's original plot.

With stage and music direction provided by Patti and Stu Knazik of West Laurel, score highlights like "I Dreamed a Dream," the popular anthem that carried Susan Boyle to recent success on reality TV, should strike a familiar chord even with first-timers in the audience.

The Knaziks have assembled a winning cast of over 40 beautifully costumed teens to tackle the difficult score. Across the board, all the performers manage to find shining moments on stage, both vocally and in their delivery of convincing characterizations.

And the Laurel Mill Playhouse's rendition of the classic struggle for redemption by Jean Valjean, portrayed soulfully here by Zach McKinney, makes an impression as fresh as the earnest young troupe performing it.

There are considerable logistical challenges to overcome mounting this show in such an intimate space. But the elegant set and lighting designed by David Phelps and the choreography of Hannah Mollerick go a long way toward transforming the small stage into a bustling early 19th-century Parisian underworld.

The Prologue opens on a prison scene — where Valjean has served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread — and leads audience members through the establishment of Valjean's new identity as a wealthy factory-owner and mayor known as Monsieur Madelaine.

Characters who intersect with the fate of Valjean/Madelaine include his dogged persecutor, Inspector Javert, played by Michael Baeder, of West Laurel; Fantine, an unmarried factory worker, played on alternate weekends by Rachel Ridley and Kathryn Binney, who turns to prostitution to support her daughter; and Fantine's soon-to-be-orphaned daughter herself, Cosette, played as a child by Emily Simonaire and later by the Knaziks' own daughter, Jocelyn.

Marius, played by Noah Fogg, is the student revolutionary who later falls in love with the grown-up Cosette.

Providing strong support as the unscrupulous Thérnardiers are Isacc Simonaire and Victoria Brown. Their daughter, Éponine, who grows up to secretly love Marius, is played as a child by Cinnamon Sipper and as a young woman by Brittany Hanson.

Enjolras, played by Tim Baeder, of West Laurel, leads the student revolutionaries and is Marius' friend. Gavroche is a fearless young street urchin played by Andrew Simonaire.

A talented ensemble of supporting actors too numerous to list adds the crucial voices of prisoners, factory workers, prostitutes and student revolutionaries.

As the characters struggle for freedom and redemption in a world defined by poverty and oppression, the value of love and compassion evolves as the show's prevailing theme.

The kindness of Dexter Warren as The Bishop who forgives Valjean's thievery and sets him on the true path to redemption early on provides one uplifting moment in a show with more than its share of sorrows. Another highlight is the scene where the prostitutes appear, perhaps because the teenaged male actors all take such joy in performing "The Docks."

The imagery of war introduced in Act 1 culminates in armed conflict in Act 2 as the idealistic students man the barricades and take a stand against social tyranny. As the sound of gunshots and flashing lights intensify, the death toll rises until, ultimately, Valjean finds redemption in a bittersweet ending.

The Laurel Mill Playhouse's "Les Misérables School Edition" comes with a "parental guidance" warning due to language and content. It continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Aug. 21, at 508 Main St., in Laurel. Reservations are recommended. For tickets and information, call 301-617-9906.

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