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Do you hear the people sing? Theater Works production of 'Les Miserables' opens Friday in Peoria

The youth show, opening on Sept. 9, has close ties with the original Broadway production.

The Theater Works production of "Les Miserables" will run Sept. 9 - 25 at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts. The show includes ASU freshman Julian Mendoza in the lead role of Jean Valjean.

The Theater Works production of "Les Miserables" will run Sept. 9 - 25 at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts. The show includes ASU freshman Julian Mendoza in the lead role of Jean Valjean.

For almost 30 years, a beloved musical tale of love and redemption in revolution-era France has been captivating audiences all around the world. The latest performance, to be performed by local teenagers, aims to carry on that legacy.

The Theater Works youth production of the musical "Les Miserables" opens this Friday at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts. The cast contains youth from all over the Valley, including ASU freshman Julian Mendoza in the lead role of Jean Valjean.

Mendoza said he has enjoyed the experience of working in this production, and he had nothing but praise for his cast-mates and artistic directors.

“Working with this creative team has been an unforgettable experience,” Mendoza said. “I’ve learned so much from them, and hopefully I can follow in their footsteps.”

Katie Rodin, a senior at Arcadia High School in Phoenix, plays the part of Cosette. She also said she thinks highly of her peers and is anticipating performing with them on opening night.

“I’m most looking forward to putting on a fantastic show with a fantastic cast,” Rodin said. “I’ve made such a connection with everyone and they are all so talented. I can’t wait to tell this touching story.”

"Les Miserables" has seen many adaptations and revivals (including an Oscar-winning movie in 2012), but very few have come close to recreating the magic of the original 1987 Broadway production.

That is, until now — at least according to Kelli James, who performed in the original production and is directing the Theater Works show. James said she distinctly remembers auditioning for the show 30 years ago.

“I auditioned in Los Angeles in 1986,” James said. “The show hadn’t come to America yet, and was relatively unknown at the time. A friend recommended it to me. I auditioned for Eponine, whose character description was ‘an angel with a dirty face.’ I actually dressed for the part for the audition, and basically looked like an urchin. Everyone laughed at me.”

That laughter was short-lived, as James’s daring wardrobe choice paid off.

“I immediately got a callback and was cast as a member of the company and as understudy for Eponine," James said. "I had to move to New York, where I didn’t have a place to live. I ended up staying with a friend.”

James described the experience as life-changing, and as the birth of a phenomenon that still inspires today.

“I made incredible friends in the cast,” James said. “We opened first at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in December of 1986, and a few months later, we opened on Broadway!”

English actress Frances Ruffelle originally performed as Eponine, reprising her role from the 1985 London performance and won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. After Ruffelle departed from the show, James took over and became the first American Eponine.

“Every aspect of that show was performed from the ground up,” James said. “We didn’t know exactly what it was. We didn’t know it would become the worldwide phenomenon that it is today. The great thing about it is that the experience has come full circle, and now I’m directing the musical that has affected my life so much.”

The original story of “Les Miserables” was published as a French historical fiction novel by Victor Hugo in 1862. It was adapted into a musical in Paris in 1980, and after finding success in Europe, came to Broadway in 1987. The original Broadway production won 8 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

When asked what elements of the original production were brought into this one, James gave a brief but poignant response:

“All of them.”

James said there is not a single thing in the production that was not part of the original show.

“Everything I learned while part of the company, I tried to teach them," she said. "I was heavily influenced by our original director, Trevor Nunn."

She said she hopes to help the Theater Works cast experience the same musical journey that she took part in 30 years ago.

“I have very high esteem for the original company," James said. "We’re the ones who started the worldwide success that is ‘Les Miserables.’ I wanted our actors to understand the original company. I wanted them to experience ‘Les Miserables’ for what it truly is, not some movie or concert.”

The cast’s loyalty to the original show has given James great faith in the end product.

“The beginnings of the show are irreplaceable, and I feel that this production has come the closest to any other to recreating the magic of the original,” James said. “I’m so proud of this company. We have a ways to go, but I’m confident we’ll end up on a whole new level.”

The Theater Works youth production of “Les Miserables” runs from Sept. 9-25, at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets can be purchased here.

Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story misstated the theater where the performance will be. "Les Miserables" will be at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts. The story was updated with the correct information.

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