'Les Miserables' gives teen-ager big break


The scene was like something out of a movie.

A beautiful young girl dons her waitress uniform and is about to step out the door to go to work when a phone rings. The voice on the other end wants to make her a star.

For Stephanie Waters, real life is better than any script: The 19-year-old Columbia resident has been plucked to play the coveted role of Cosette in the national touring production of "Les Miserables."

The big break couldn't have been more surprising for Waters, who had been schlepping plates at the Macaroni Grill in Columbia in anticipation of starting her sophomore year at New York University. Now school will wait a year while she tours the country.

"It was so random," Waters said as she paused while packing in her parents' home in Kings Contrivance. "I hadn't auditioned for them for a year. I'm psyched."

Ask anyone and they will tell you that Stephanie Waters is destined for stardom. Everyone from neighbors to teachers have been predicting big things for the River Hill High School graduate.

Bitten by the acting bug as a child, Waters persuaded her parents to take her to auditions for a library theater company when she was 12.

"It was an adult theater company that did plays at libraries in Washington, D.C., to encourage reading," recalled her mother, Maria Waters. "We almost turned around and left the auditions because it was all adults.

"They said they couldn't take her [Stephanie] because of her age, but they hired her as an intern and halfway through she took over one of the roles from a woman in the group."

What followed was years of honing her skills in local theater. In 1998, Waters was nominated for the prestigious Helen Hayes award for her portrayal of Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" at Toby's Dinner Theatre. A year later, President Clinton awarded her a White House Presidential Scholar award.

"She has always known what she wanted and gone for it," said Toby Orenstein, owner of the dinner theater. "She's an exceptional talent."

Yesterday, Waters - a theater and political science major at NYU - rushed about her parents' house attending to last-minute details. There were items to be bought for the nine-month road trip, friends to e-mail and a going-away party to be planned before she leaves Tuesday.

And, of course, there were the congratulatory phone calls to field.

"Hi, Debbie," Waters yelled enthusiastically into the family phone. "Yes, I'm joining them in San Francisco."

Ashleigh Shead, a friend of Waters' since seventh grade, declared that Waters was now "big time."

"I'm about to die," said Shead, 18. "I'm so excited for her and very proud."

For her family, the triumph is bittersweet. Waters, her parents and her 16-year-old sister, Michelle, are a close-knit family.

"It just hit me last night that she will be gone for nine whole months," her mother said wistfully. "Nine months of not coming home at all."

Waters is arriving on the tour as a replacement. The show has already played in the area, so friends and family won't be able to see her in a local performance and she will not be back until her run ends. And though she will miss her friends and family - and the New York apartment she was to live in with friends during the school year - Waters said she is anxious to follow her dreams.

"I've always been very goal oriented," Waters said. "I want to keep moving ahead."

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