I will freely admit that I had a certain amount of anxiety when approaching Minnetonka's production of Les Misérables. I mean, how could an amateur group possibly do justice to a show on the scale and grandeur of Les Mis? Clearly, I hadn't counted on the fact director R. Kent Knutson has impossibly ambitious dreams, and he had brought 75 students along with 11 staff all the way from Minnesota, USA. When Knut dreams, he dreams big.
The show itself is a complex tale set in early 19th Century France, following the life of a one-time convict, Jean Valjean (Zach Dimond), and his constant evasion of Inspector Javert (Ben Henschel) whilst trying to lead an honest life. Cosette (Lauren Bartelt), the daughter of prostitute Fantine (Alison McCartan), is adopted by Valjean to save her from spending her life in servitude at the hands of the Thénardiers (Zac Henschel & Franki DeLaVega). Years later, Marius (Alex Messenger), a French student, falls in love with Cosette and he in turn is loved by Eponine (Katy Knutson), the daughter of the Thénardiers. And it's all set against the backdrop of a bloody battle between the students and the state over oppression of the lower classes. It's a bit deep - but it has great tunes.
From the start, this production is breathtakingly incredible. The power and skill of these voices belies their years. There's clarity in the lyrics - a rare treat in an amateur show - and vocal performances that can cope with the broad range needed to deal with Claude-Michel Schönberg's challenging score. In this School Edition, it's 25 minutes shorter than the original, but no major songs are cut. However, it does make the piece feel as though it's running along at quite a pace. The School Edition was developed by Musical Theatre International last year, and made available only to amateur casts under 19.
Ok, so the acting is a little iffy at times (although still of a high standard for a schools group), and we don't have the benefit of the ubiquitous revolve to marvel at the barricade, but hey, it would be churlish to draw attention to these minor flaws under the weight of the sheer brilliance of the singing. It was just sublime.
Zach Dimond has got to be the most talented young actor I have seen as part of any American High School Theatre Festival presentation in many years - his rendition of Bring Him Home brought richly deserved cheers of 'Bravo!' from the crowd. But it was 10 year-old James Wiersum that stole the show as Gavroche. My God. Talk about young talent.
The emotion builds with each and every production number. I left the theatre literally shaking - an emotional wreck - having watched the most magnificent Edinburgh musical I had seen in more than a decade.