Instead of returning to Marblehead Community Charter School this fall, 11-year-old Joanna Rosen chose to be home-schooled so she could focus on performing.
"It was a very big decision," said her mother, Debra Basile. "We wanted to give it a try and see what would develop theater-wise, never thinking this was going to come up so quickly."
"This" is Joanna landing the featured role of Young Cosette in "Les Miserables" at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly.
Cosette is the waif with the large eyes and flowing hair that has been the face of "Les Miz" since its Broadway debut in 1987. Her signature solo, "Castle on a Cloud," is one of the most memorable songs in the show. "I had a baby-sitter a long time ago who sang that song to me, so I sort of knew it," said Joanna, who lives in Marblehead.
At auditions in September, she was among 50 young actors - 30 girls and 20 boys - competing for three roles. Unlike most shows at North Shore, there is no youth ensemble or chorus. The cast is made up of adult professional actors, several of whom appeared in "Les Miserables" on Broadway.
In addition to Joanna, 9-year-old Isabelle Miller of Melrose was chosen as Young Eponine, and Sebastian Hoffman of Lowell won the role of Gavroche.
"They came to us from an open casting call, and I find it very inspiring to find such terrific young performers in our local community," said Barry Ivan, director and choreographer of "Les Miserables" and North Shore's artistic director and executive producer for 2008.
While "Les Miz" may be their first big break, Joanna and Isabelle are no strangers to the stage.
In the past year, Joanna played Snoopy in "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown," Lucy in "Narnia," and James in "James and the Giant Peach" with Theatre of Light in Salem. She also sings in the Boston Children's Chorus Concert Choir and studies piano.
It's been her dream to perform at North Shore. "I have been to a few productions, and I always thought how cool it would be if I could actually be in one of those plays," Joanna said.
That led to an uncharacteristic case of nerves at the audition. "I have never been nervous before. But I was so nervous, I felt like I was going to collapse." After winning the role, I was relieved. I was happy. I was every emotion. And when the excitement died down, I was a little scared."
Isabelle also has an impressive resume. She appeared in "A Christmas Carol" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" at North Shore, and in "Winnie the Pooh" as part of its Youth Performance Academy. She also played JoJo in the Wakefield Repertory Theater production of "Seussical," a role that won her the DASH Award for Best Child Actor from the Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theaters. She plays violin and piano and dances.
Both girls are from talented families. Joanna's mother is a pianist, piano and voice teacher, and has worked as a musical director. Isabelle's parents, Dr. Clay Miller and Rhonda Miller, are both former dancers with Ballet West in Salt Lake City.
A fourth-grader at the Roosevelt Elementary School in Melrose, Isabelle said that at the "Les Miz" audition, "I was kind of nervous, but I also know the songs and I was confident."
When she got the role of Young Eponine and understudy for Young Cosette, she said, "I was excited because this is a big deal."
Melissa Bisso, who worked with her in several shows at the Wakefield Repertory Company as a producer and performer, said Isabelle is a mature 9-year-old.
"She comes in knowing her lines and her music and is very attentive during rehearsals," Bisso said. . "She has a lot of discipline. And she definitely has a lot of natural talent."
As for pursing a career in theater, Isabelle said, "I'll have to see. I am enjoying this, but there are other things I'd like to do and try. I like pets and might want to be a veterinarian."
Joanna is more certain of her future. "I really, really want to be an actress in musical theater when I grow up," she said. "I think 'Les Miz' is a really good experience for me and the start of my career."
Fred Inkley, who plays the role of Jean Valjean - which he did on Broadway in 1995 and 1998 - said Joanna is "very innocent, yet professional. It's fun to watch her. She is extremely sweet and a great little talent. She has a beautiful voice. It is very pure and dead-on."
Anthony Trecek-King, artistic director of the Boston Children's Chorus, said Joanna "is a wonderful kid and a bubbly person. When she performs, she takes that on stage. And she has gigantic eyes that melt you a little bit."
Barbara Eyges, who first cast Joanna in a Theatre of Light show in 2003 - and many times since - said she recognized her talent right away. "Little Joanna shined up there. You could tell she was something special. She is very expressive vocally and facially."
Inkley said Joanna has a bright future. "To make it this far shows an immense amount of talent and focus, and then it's her call. She could definitely be doing this on tour or on Broadway."
Meanwhile, Joanna is hard at work at North Shore, concentrating on her first
"People keep asking me how the home-schooling is going," her mother said. "I end up saying, 'Well, we haven't done much of that. We haven't had much chance.' "
"Les Miserables" runs through Nov. 18 at the North Shore Music Theatre at 62 Dunham Road in Beverly. Call 978-232-7200 or visit nsmt.org.