PLANT CITY — When Ashley Allen learned Plant City Entertainment had won the rights to perform Les Misérables, the Riverview lawyer barely hesitated: She showed up with about 100 other actors and singers for the all-day audition, hoping at least for a part in the chorus.
"It's a classic," Allen said. "If you've grown up in theater, you know the musical."
The show has enjoyed long runs on Broadway dating to the 1980s and last year was introduced to a new generation with the movie starring Hugh Jackman and Academy Award-winner Anne Hathaway, but only recently had it become available to community theaters. Plant City Entertainment won the rights in February and started rehearsals in April.
The company's nine performances are scheduled July 19 to Aug. 3. Tickets are $14.
Allen, 29, plays Cosette, one of four female leads and arguably the most sought-after of the female roles.
The day of the audition, she showed up aiming for Cosette but had doubts after assessing the talent around her also vying for the role.
Allen, who runs her fledgling law practice from home, says that like other actors in the show, her love of community theater started in childhood and never died out. She has no illusions about pursuing an acting career and said the daily juggling — motherhood, her law practice and acting — is worth it once she steps on stage. Allen and her husband, Lyle, who works for the Veterans Administration, have a 2-year-old daughter, Violet.
"It's definitely a commitment to do community theater," Allen said. "After the last show (Godspell, with the Village Players in Valrico), I wasn't sure I wanted to do it again, leaving my husband two to five nights a week to take care of our daughter."
Domin Pazo, the show's director, said he's glad she auditioned.
"She's got pipes," said Pazo, 45, who's been involved with Plant City Entertainment for 20 years.
The role of Cosette came down to seven women, he said. Allen "had an innocent look with a strong voice" that made her stand out.
Performing on stage provides an outlet, Allen said.
"It's a great escape," she said. "It's good therapy to get on stage and sing."
Allen's first musical was in the fifth grade, playing a bit part in Annie. She has performed in scores of shows since then, so many she loses count. A box of memorabilia attests to her love of theater: playbills, photos and miniature framed posters amassed by her parents at her hometown outside Knoxville, Tenn.
"When I was in third grade, Mom enrolled me in a drama class," Allen said. "I've been doing plays ever since."
After a hiatus during law school at Stetson University in St. Petersburg, she returned to acting a couple of years ago with the former Stagedoor community theater, the Village Players and the Frenzie Performance Factory, all in East Hillsborough.
"I've known a lot of attorneys in community theater," Allen said. "When I'm presenting a case to a judge or a jury, having that performance background, being able to speak in front of a large audience, helps a lot."
This will be her first show with Plant City Entertainment, 101 N Thomas St. The musical, which includes a 20-piece orchestra, represents the company's largest production in its 33-year history. The stage was expanded 2 feet to accommodate the sets and actors.
Set in early 19th century France, Les Misérables tells the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant, and his quest for redemption after serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Valjean breaks parole and is relentlessly tracked down by police inspector Javert.
Along the way, he adopts Cosette, the daughter of a deceased factory worker. Later, the characters are swept up in the chaos of the French Revolution. Allen plays the older Cosette.
Music Theatre International, which controls the rights to Les Misérables, announced in November that for the first time it would release the rights to community theaters. Plant City Entertainment will be only the second community theater statewide to perform Les Misérables. The first: Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, which opens July 17, two days ahead of Plant City.
Dodie White, a board member for Plant City Entertainment, said she jumped at the chance after hearing the show was being released. She emailed fellow board members and contacted Music Theatre International. The rights became available in January. She sent a $4,000 check to the company the next day.
"I was so excited. Everybody was. We were just thrilled," she said.
Word spread across the region and by the time of auditions, 107 had shown up, the largest turnout ever for Plant City, Pazo said.
"The popularity of the show is tremendous. This and Phantom (of the Opera) are considered the two most popular musicals in the world," he said.
A spaghetti dinner to defray costs is set from 4 to 7 p.m. July 13 at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, 302 N Carey St. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.