Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Broadway Comes to Theater Works -

Kelli James in Broadway's Les Misérables - 1987

by Jennifer Haaland

Back in 1987 Kelli James auditioned in L.A. for a new show that was coming from London to Broadway called Les Misérables. She was cast in the ensemble and became the understudy for the role of Eponine, assuming the part when the English actress flew back across the pond. Now James is directing an effusively praised new production of the iconic show in which she originated that tragic ingénue's American role. There's one weekend left to see several distinct ways that the original production is continuing to add touches of Broadway to the current Theater Works show.

For this Peoria production, it's become a story of James directing, James performing and James conducting. Sort of. She and Theater Works' cast-member Trey DeGroodt (Javert) made a great storytelling team the week after the show opened, as they stressed that original Broadway elements beyond James' personal influence are at work
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"The 'chair' feels very comfortable," began first-time director James, who has been mostly coaching and performing in the Valley in the recent past. "I don't know if it's because I really understand directing from the actor's perspective, because this show is so close to my heart, or both."

"Kelli has a knack for pulling the best out of all of us," said DeGroodt, who has been in three different productions of Les Misérables in his young career. "It's been like a seven week long Broadway master class."

Trey DeGroodt as Javert
Les Misérables: School Edition  - Theater Works
photo: Wade Moran
After a 30 year performing career that included work with several original Andrew Lloyd Webber shows,  and working alongside Broadway legend Hal Prince, James has been coaching in her Broadway Advantage studio in Scottsdale. As she directed this Theater Works Les Misérables: School Edition she wanted it to reflect the famous American company that she holds so dear, inclusive of incorporating the original revolving stage.

"I wanted to bring as much authenticity and preserve all the original direction I could," she said. "I learned so much from my directors and didn't want to steer off  that course as I helped my actors find their way. It's not a mirror or regurgitated art, though.  I laid the process on them, passed the torch down in that way."

DeGroodt followed, "She taught us to be thinking actors so that this show comes straight out of our own hearts. And, oh my gosh, she would text members of the original cast and creative team right during rehearsal!"

Calling on the original masters to imbue the youthful cast's performance has yielded critical raves in Phoenix.  Along with Kelli James' experience and expertise, a different Broadway James has played a huge role.  This production's Musical Director, James May, on Broadway has conducted or musically directed shows including Les Misérables, Sunset Boulevard,  and in Los Angeles, Les Misérables, The Lion King, Wicked and many others.

"In the first two weeks, he taught us the music top to bottom. No blocking, all music," DeGroodt described. "Then he had us put the books down and asked we just act the show up on stage while we sang it straight through. That improvisation set the mood for the rest of the rehearsal time. It was modified by Kelli when we found different motivations or practiced new exercises and skills. But the way we felt and acted that first run-through remained."

Anthony Crivello
As if that Broadway influence wasn't remarkable enough, Theatre Works and James have gone a step further.  Friday's performance this week includes a preshow that features James singing with yet another original member of the American Broadway cast.  Tony Winner (1993) Anthony Crivello, played Javert--DeGroodt's current role--when James was singing Eponine and May was in the pit on Broadway.

"My dear friend Anthony is coming to town," said James.  "We'll be singing together along with several other Valley talents in a benefit for Theater Works before Friday night's Les Misérables performance."

In that way, the Broadway James tri-fecta is present at Theater Works in Peoria for this special production of Les Misérables. As James considered what her personal stamp on the show might be, she acknowledged the likelihood of a new feminine element in the musical's presentation.

"I had such a sensitivity to the players in the story; my cast digested how I feel about man's inhumanity to man, so this is not a Les Misérables of power or battles of strength."  She concluded, "There's a nurturing at work here. It's contagious when you love something."

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