Les Miserables

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by | Directed & Choreographed by Kristina Friedgen | Produced by Young Artists of America, March 2019

Young Artists of America’s (YAA) presented Les Misérables as the main stage production. As such, it showcased the work of over 200 young people on one of Washington, DC’s premiere performance venues, Strathmore Music Hall. In order to present this popular epic on a concert hall stage, I focused on showcasing the performers’ talents through the support of minimalist design elements aided by movement, lights, and projections. Because YAA’s productions center on the performer’s interpretations over the grandeur of production design, I elected to make judicious use of costumes, props, and set dressing in order to accentuate the performer’s storytelling abilities. With projections carrying the weight of major plot details, such as time and place, I capitalized on every available playing space within the hall to create an immersive concert experience. The downstage most portions were utilized often and kept flexible by bringing set dressing on and off as needed. A platform up center behind the orchestra was similarly employed. The two playing areas upstage on either side of the center platform anchored the set in two major locations – the gate outside Valjean’s home (upstage right) and Javert’s bridge (upstage left). The flexibility of the set arrangement I created allowed for dynamically staged moments, as well as intimate vignettes.

In addition to the six main playing areas on stage, I made use of the aisles for key moments in full company numbers to better set the environment. For instance, I staged “The Beggars” scene, which advances the play ten years, moves the story to Paris, and introduces a new set of characters, with ensemble members entering from the back of the house and up the aisles to create a more immersive experience for audience in the orchestra section. A few scenes later for “Stars” the company members were staged throughout the house, among the choir lofts, and three balconies of seating in the hall. These company members, equipped with LED flashlights created the night sky filled with stars as Javert sang to the heavens. By utilizing the entire performance venue, we were able to create the illusion that the action of the play encompassed the audience – an impressive feat in a 1600 seat theatre! This allowed the audience to become further engrossed in the story and take in the powerful messages inherent in the music.

In addition to the staging, lighting and projections illuminated both the performers choices as well as crucial story information, such as environment, time, and, character. Key moments of character development, such as “Bring Him
Home” or “Little Fall of Rain” highlighted intimate performances. The lighting and projections during such moments
fostered an illusion of reality, such as when LED animated gobos projected falling rain on the stage floor while animated rain poured across the screen from the beginning of “On my Own” and continued until Eponine dies. Working within the parameters of the Strathmore Concert Hall, I aimed to reflect the scope of the story by staging the action of the play so that it literally surrounded the music, musicians, and even the audience. The selective use of design to support the stellar performances and showcase our students’ talents ensconced this production of Les Misérables in powerful moments of spectacle. This artistic choice emphasized the power of the actor/singer as storyteller.

Featured selections

Description of Experience

At Young Artists of America, we stage in-concert performances of musicals with almost entirely youth performers. Our production of Les Miserables featured over 200 young people performing in the cast, orchestra, and choir, as compared with only 2 professional, adult musicians to support the production. Over the course of approximately 24 rehearsals, we worked diligently on song interpretation, physical character, musical staging, and beat work to bring this story to life. Because of the minimal approach to the design and the large number of bodies on stage for company numbers, I incorporated a range of physical character work to help communicate scene transitions. For more intimate scenes, the featured and leading players and I worked extensively beat by beat to dissect intention and motivation to craft detailed and nuanced performances (as can be seen in the video selections). Over the course of rehearsals, staff and students explored several of the themes of this play with our company. We partnered with Greater Washington Foundation through a grant from the Donors Investing in the Arts (DIVAS) Fund to empower YAA students to use non-violent means to identify modern day injustice including immigrations, class inequity, the school to prison pipeline, and gender-based oppression. This program, entitled “Hear the People Sing” featured dialogues after rehearsal on various topics and culminated with NBC Channel 4 interviewing
students about the program. The impressive professionalism with which these young performers operate at Young Artists of America helped to keep the process effective despite a limited rehearsals and time on stage. While the cast began rehearsal in January of 2019 for a mid-March performance, only about 6 weeks of rehearsals held 2-3 times a week were allowed for staging. The performers had one staging rehearsal on the concert hall stage, one dress rehearsal with orchestra, and one performance only. Because of the dedicated focus and passion for excellence instilled in these young, gifted singers and actors our production of Les Miserables received excellent reviews which highlighted both the company as well as individuals.

Reviews

Young Artists of America rehearsal for "Les Misérable In Concert" on March 16, 2019 at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Md.

“I am pleased to report that I saw performances in this show that rivaled some of the professional theatre that I have experienced. As a complete production, it was cohesive and massively enjoyable; the first act clocks in at nearly 2 hours, but flew by and when the show was over, it left the audience of over 1600 people wanting more.”

MD Theatre Guide

“Director Kristina Friedgen made sure that the large number of students (at times there were 300 performers on stage, including the orchestra and choruses) were all able to spend some time in the limelight without the large group devolving into chaos.”

DC Metro Theater Arts

Production and rehearsal photos

Director’s Note

Les Misérables is more than just a beloved musical, it is a classic story of mercy and justice at a time when the world was just beginning to wake up to the possibilities of equality and the inalienable rights of the human person. Our protagonist, John Valjean, comes of age at a time when the social class to which you are born is the height of what
you can achieve. His imprisonment for a small misdemeanor cuts his young life short. By the time he is released in his early thirties, he has become hardened by a system that has oppressed him all his life. However, once he is released from prison, events unfold that demand he rise beyond the expectations of society. He is ultimately
redeemed by the good works that he dedicates his life to after his encounter with the Bishop.

Over the course of rehearsals, we at YAA have explored several of the themes of this play with our company. Even our own society, in which we claim to have “liberty and justice for all,” is guilty of practicing similar injustices. We often jump too quickly to judge an action without looking beyond to the greater context that led to that moment. By doing so we often perpetuate societal problems for years to come. This fixed mindset can be seen through the character of Javért as he wrestles with the inability to reconcile the two halves of Jean Valjean’s character.

Ultimately this is the story of the power of love to transform a person’s soul. The ability to love another person, to practice compassion towards those we don’t know personally, and to sacrifice self for those we love requires an open heart and humility. In this age of social media where we often surround ourselves with mirrors of our own opinions, mindsets, and “truths” we too easily lose our ability to humbly listen and approach each other with the dignity each person deserves. As you enjoy this afternoon’s performance, I invite you to ponder the ultimate lesson of Les Misérables: “to love another person is to see the face of God.” Whether you are religious or not, I truly believe that it is through love that we see the best in humanity

Full video highlights


The Producers

by Mel Brooks | Directed by Kristina Friedgen | Produced by The Little Theatre of Alexandria, August 2019

Director’s Concept

Mel Brooks’ epic musical, The Producers, has left audiences rolling in the aisles in its every
incarnation. The story seems to be timeless and able to withstand every bout of political
correctness imaginable. Perhaps this is due to the frankness which every character seems to
possess in this show. Whether it’s Max’s brand of bluntness, Leo’s earnest nature, Ulla’s
seemingly naive candor, Franz’s hapless devotion to the Third Reich (even through his fear of
being caught), or Roger & Carmen’s relentless ability to call each other out, the audience is free
to laugh at every twist and turn because of the earnestness these characters expel through
every moment of their journey. Especially in the midst of all the schtick of the piece, the actors
must bring honesty to their performance–that is what grounds the humor in the play through
each ridiculous aspect (sausage and beer stein Ziegfeld showgirls, anyone?) It’s this honesty
that allows us to cheer for Max as he beguiles Little Old Ladies out of their money and laugh at
Leo’s sheepishness when he runs off with Ulla, only to turn himself in to save his friend. The
trap of The Producers is to go so​ far into the camp that the piece becomes cheesy. It requires
a delicate hand to navigate through the various comedic forms present in this show.

As a huge Mel Brooks’ fan (Young Frankenstein is my second favorite movie of all time), as well
as a devotee of Susan Stroman (the original director/choreographer of this show) I would love
the challenge of working on such a classic piece of musical theatre. Despite the relatively
recent publishing of The Producers, the show pulls its roots from the Golden Age of
“let’s-make-a-musical” shows, such as Forty Second Street, while spoofing the medium.
Blending these two forms, Mel Brooks’ comedy and Musical Theatre, would serve as the overall
conceptual aesthetic for this production.

Production Photos

Press

Maryland Theatre Guide

The current production of “The Producers,” directed by Kristina Friedgen and choreographed by Stefan Sittig, is outstanding.  Leo Bloom was played by Ryan Phillips, who told this reviewer he liked the nuances of Gene Wilder’s performance in the original 1968 film, but he liked the physical humor of Mathew Broderick’s performance in the 2005 Hollywood version of the musical.  Mr. Phillips’ performance successfully captures the best of both portrayals.   

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DC Metro Theatre Arts

Funny Boy, a musical version of HamletA Breaking WindShe Schtups to Conquer–could anyone predict how much those fictional plays would wow audiences? The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s The Producers explores the challenges of putting on a hit. You can’t lose with this show: the book for this musical is by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, and Brooks wrote the music and lyrics. Colin Taylor provided music direction and conduction, and Stefan Sittig choreographed. Director Kristina Friedgen has directed a show that’s fun from start to finish.

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Alexandria Times

In the official director’s notes for the show, Director Kristina Friedgen wrote that she hoped the show would inspire audiences “to laugh at ourselves more and allow others to laugh with us while we do that.”

Friedgen’s direction emphasizes this, as every character is successfully the butt of one joke or another, from the flamboyant Roger DeBris (Brian Lyons-Burke) to the flirtatious Ulla (Sirena Dib). No one gets out unscathed, and so nothing is taken too seriously.

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The Drowsy Chaperone

The Drowsy Chaperone pays tribute to the Jazz-age shows of the 1920s and the power those shows held to transport us into a dazzling fantasy and to lift our spirits in times of sadness.

With moving this show into a small space, like the Arts Barn, we decided to accentuate the fact that the show is happening in the mind of Man in Chair. To achieve this made the entire theatre look like the small apartment of Man in Chair. As he listens to the record of The Drowsy Chaperone and listens to the show, characters appear from all areas of the theatre, including the house and overtake the entire space, transforming it into the world of the play.

Production Photos

Review

“Man in Chair pulls the strings of the entire production, and Set Designer Bill Brown embraced this concept in his design. The entire stage was Man in Chair’s apartment, from the red cushy chair off to the left with his record collection to the kitchen in the back. Throughout the play, various set pieces would roll on and off, as if the performers were putting on the musical in Man in Chair’s living room. Oftentimes, Man in Chair would help move a set-piece, or even walk through a scene to get a cup of tea. The stage was Man in Chair’s playground, and Brown along with Director and Choreographer Kristina Friedgen utilized this concept in a successful and amusing manner.” – DC Metro Theater Arts