Area youths stage Les Misrables this weekend in Basalt |

Area youths stage Les Misrables this weekend in Basalt

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad The Aspen Times

BASALT The latest musical to be staged by the Basalt-based childrens theater company, Gottlieb Bartley Productions, addresses an issue familiar to anyone who reads to, or talks to, 4-year-olds. It is, in a way, the fundamental theme of most childrens literature not to mention the bulk of adult literature, and other art forms. It can be seen as the first of human issues, the most enduring, and also the simplest.Right versus wrong. Good against evil. The apple or the word of God; Harry Potter or Lord Voldemort; the Cat in the Hat or the conscience-stricken, latchkey kids.Those who have followed Gottlieb Bartley Productions, however, know to expect the theme to be explored on a sophisticated level. The three-year-old organization, founded and run by Jayne Gottlieb and Adam Bartley, has built a reputation for aiming high both in the entertainment value for its audience, and the opportunity for its young actors to dig into mature, intelligent material. Past shows include the witty comedy Singin in the Rain, and this past summers A Chorus Line, whose themes of sexuality were left intact, but done with sensitivity for the performers and audience.The latest production is similarly high-minded: Les Misrables, the smash, opera-like musical based on Victor Hugos 1862 novel, which is set amidst the uprising of students and the poor against an elitist, 19th-century French society. The production, featuring 38 actors, ages 8-17, shows this weekend at the Basalt Middle School auditorium, and moves upvalley next weekend for performances at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.

Les Misrables, probably the most successful stage musical ever, provides the participants a full immersion in French history of the period. We talked about everything, said Bartley, who directs the production, while Gottlieb choreographs. Not only for their educational benefit, but for their character study. Having more details allows them the luxury of more character depth. And theyre taking it on; theyre phenomenal at it.But at the center of the story is the fundamental concept of right and wrong or as Bartley puts it, finding ones soul, ones moral compass. Bartley quotes what he believes is the musicals essential line: What was wrong seems right, and what was right seems wrong.Simple enough. Though in Les Misrables, that idea is brought to life on an epic scale. (The Gottlieb Bartley version is actually the recently created school version, but Bartley says it shortens the musical while leaving the story and all the music intact.) The plot centers around Jean Valjean who, as the narrative begins, is just being released from a 20-year prison sentence for theft of a loaf of bread. Valjean played by Ethan Griggs, a frequent Gottlieb Bartley participant who now attends the Denver School of Performing Arts is doggedly pursued by the policeman, Javert (A.J. Palacio, who gave a shockingly emotional portrayal of the gay Paul in A Chorus Line). But Javert largely overlooks Valjeans goodness that he is leading an honorable and successful life, that he has made it his mission to care for his adopted daughter, Cosette (a role shared by Madeleine Leibinger and Samantha Crippen).Valjean and Javert, said Bartley, have a dance through the show, back and forth. Javert represents the order of law, to the maximum degree.At the end, Javert finally realizes this man is good. And the goodness in him overcomes Javerts need to follow the law. That doesnt really compute for Javert, so it brings him to his end.

Having staged such shows as Beauty and the Beast, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan and Bye Bye Birdie, Bartley is raring to enter the realm of the realistic.This is why I love it: Theyre getting to act something that actually happened, said Bartley, a Minnesota native who spent two years in the cast at Aspens Crystal Palace dinner theater, and time in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, before returning to Aspen last year to devote himself full-time to Gottlieb Bartley Productions. Its fiction, but its based on history. It takes place on the dawn of the French Revolution, as the students are setting to rise and take their country back. So this is a story that could have happened; these are characters who could have existed.It is also a story that has some parallels with the current state of America. The revolution is emerging from Napoleons elitist society, one in which protest is squelched. Valjeans imprisonment 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread to fend off starvation was part of Napoleons plan to get rid of the poor people, to get them off the streets, said Bartley. Meanwhile the government was attacking them for revolting, for any kind of civil disobedience.Rather than emphasizing any metaphorical aspect of Les Misrables, Bartley likes the fact that the revolution is being stoked by youthful energy. He believes there is something for his cast to see in that.Whats cool is, we have a story about students, primarily and poor deciding to challenge their government and country and people, starting in the classroom, to combat what they believe is wrong, he said. France has turned into elitist versus poor, and the poor outnumber the elite, 10-to-one. Napoleon gave nothing to the poor, no services, no food, no assistance. So youd have these students in college, in Paris, walking out into the streets of emaciated and dead and poor, every day. Les Misrables was not an easy show to get. Though the musical, featuring such songs as On My Own and One Day More, opened in 1981 in Paris, and in 1987 on Broadway, the rights for the adult version have not yet been made available for community theater groups. The student version was only made available in the last year. Gottlieb Bartley is treating it like a precious commodity: The set design is their biggest yet; the costumes have been rented from a Los Angeles company that does nothing but rent outfits for Les Mis. Why not? Its hard to do this show and not have the costumes, said Bartley. People will be knocked out of their socks.No question, people, both on the stage and in the seats, have been blown away by what the company has presented. Such actors as Zoe Levine, Allie Fifield and Ben Belinski have become familiar faces through their appearances in Gottlieb Bartley Productions; all three are featured in Les Mis. Forty-five youngsters appeared in the summer production of A Chorus Line. Bartley says the key has been giving the kids credit for their ambitions and talents.Its not capping the unlimited potential of young actors, he said. Its a departure from cutesy, to adult-like depth, adult-like stage savvy. When people see the shows, they always say, I cant believe these are kids. Because their potential is so much higher than what theyre usually given credit for. And were blessed with some great talent, too.Bartley says Les Mis includes the next wave of talent. Brooke Altman plays the innkeeper Madame Thnardiers, and sings Master of the House. Troy Fantini plays the leader of the revolution, Enjoiras, while Adam Wiviott portrays four characters. For all three, it is a step into the spotlight from their earlier roles with the company.An indication of how young actors are grabbing the opportunity being offered is in the case of George Bernard. The 11-year-old and his family fled their home in Houston last month, ahead of Hurricane Ike, taking shelter in the Roaring Fork Valley. George saw that Les Mis was being staged; two days later after arriving here, he auditioned. He was cast as Prouvaire, one of the revolutionaries. His family is staying through the show and, according to Bartley, is considering making the valley their home.Talk about community theater.Were developing a program and company where kids are feeling like theyre part of something special, said Bartley, whose next production, Its a Wonderful Life, will be presented in early December at the Aspen District Theatre. Thats a pretty neat feeling.

Gottlieb Bartley Productions presents Les Misrables at the Basalt Middle School theater on Friday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m., and Saturday, Oct. 25, at 2 and 7 p.m.; and at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen on Saturday, Nov. 1, at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 2, at 5

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