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"Les Mis?ables" opens this week at Santa Rosa Junior College with new student Christopher Hohmann, a young man with a fairly miserable past, playing the lead as Jean Valjean.

You truly could say it's the role of his life. Hohmann's mother may or may not make one of the 13 performances, but he said she appeared at a rehearsal the other day to let him know she had spent the night at a city park and she needed to turn herself in at the county jail.

"She's really the nicest lady you'll ever meet," Hohmann (HOE-man) pleads, his large, brown eyes emitting care and disappointment from beneath his hefty brows and backwards ballcap.

"But when she gets some alcohol in her she really changes. It brings out the sadness in her."

Over coffee, Hohmann tells of his Puerto Rican-American father dying when he was 17. "He really tried to be such a good dad," he says, but drink was a problem for him, too.

Hohmann talks of his childhood as a patchwork of crises, frequent hops among cheap rentals and homeless shelters, camping near the Russian River, foster parents, couch surfing, police encounters and failed starts.

"I had a lot of crazy stuff happen to me when I was little," he says. "My mom was always moving around."

He tells of being 2 or 3 when he found his mother passed out, so he walked outside in the dark and made it several blocks, across streets, before he was helped "by some really benevolent people."

In fact, he credits a good many such people — certainly Analy High choral director Andy DelMonte and other teachers, counselors, people who serve struggling teens — with support and kindnesses that he too often squandered.

As with both of his parents, Hohmann drank. But his bigger problem, he says, was daily use of marijuana and deep immersion into the stoned culture.

"I paid for it," says Hohmann, who was born nearly 21 years ago in Santa Rosa. "I really paid for it."

After having drifted in and out of schools in Sonoma, Petaluma, Forestville, Guerneville and Sebastopol, Hohmann says, he did well even in Advanced Placement classes at El Molino High and then Analy. But he stumbled and had to catch up in order to graduate from Analy in 2011.

He seemed to be on a new path when he was accepted into Sonoma State University, and for a time lived in the dorms and received student aid.

While there, his life bottomed out with an arrest and conviction for unlawful sexual contact with a female. He maintains that intoxication and miscommunication contributed, and he acknowledges that sobriety and counseling are necessary to assure that it doesn't happen again.

He spent time in county jail, and he remains on probation. SRJC officials say he has been forthright about the offense and he seems dogged about changing his life.

Since June he has lived at Tamayo Village, the group residence on Santa Rosa's Yulupa Avenue that Social Advocates for Youth operates for young adults who have aged out of foster care or need an alternative to living on the streets.

Earlier this fall, Hohmann enrolled at SRJC. When he saw that the school's ambitious Theatre Arts department would produce the stage musical based on Victor Hugo's celebrated novel, Les Mis?ables, it wasn't completely out of the blue that he auditioned.

He cites the love of singing as one constant in his life, something positive he inherited from his father, who was a barber and a musician. One of Hohmann's best school memories was starting at Analy High in Sebastopol after the start of his senior year and joining the honor choir.

That is something choir director DelMonte won't forget, either.

When Hohmann began with the choir, "he was already one of the best tenors I ever taught," DelMonte said. "His voice was just beautiful, well developed."

But he was not an easy kid to deal with. DelMonte said, "He's very, very intelligent but he also had a hard time with authority."

The more DelMonte learned about Hohmann's hardships, the better he appreciated the kid's challenge to trust and respect adults. "He was very careful," the teacher said.

When Hohmann lost the place where he was living as a senior, DelMonte found him a home with a friend from church. Today the choral director is most eager to see his former student in "Les Mis?ables," which opens at the JC on Friday evening.

It would not surprise DelMonte if one day he saw Hohmann on a professional stage. "He has all the potential to have a career as a performer," he said.

At the junior college, it made for a stirring moment the first time teacher-director Laura Downing-Lee heard Hohmann sing. She said he is playing Jean Valjean because he possesses one of the rare voices that can achieve the range the role demands.

"It's natural talent," said Downing-Lee. "The kid just has the voice."

His acting experience has been another matter. Downing-Lee said Hohmann has worked hard to become an actor.

"It's a tough journey," she said, but she has witnessed his drive to succeed, and he has accepted the assistance of many members of the large Les Mis?ables company.

"Chris has this gigantic heart," Downing-Lee said. "It's the kind of heart that makes you want to help him fight for a different kind of life."

Hohmann said it's clear to him that "they're really pulling for me." And he's pulling for himself.

He said that, like Valjean, he strives right now to stop running from the challenges and hard choices of life and to face them head-on. Like Valjean, the young singer/actor with the often tragic childhood and recent past seeks redemption.

Up on stage, Hohmann said, "I just feel alive. I feel like I'm in another world.

"I feel like I'm part of this great crusade for humanity."

Certainly, for his own.

(Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.)

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