New seating and carpeting, part of a recent $75,000 renovation, will welcome audience members who come to "hear the people sing."
The Francis Wilson Playhouse, now in its 85th season, tonight unveils the very popular and challenging musical, Les Misérables.
The Tony Award-winning musical runs through Sept. 21. Tickets are $26 for adults and $15 for students.
"This is the biggest, most ambitious production in our history," said Gabrielle Snapp, board member and box office manager.
Francis Wilson, the celebrity actor for whom the theater was named, no doubt would be proud of the massive undertaking: a cast of 53, numerous costumes for each actor, a set with a "barricade" that won't collapse and a secret passageway behind the main set to move the actors.
The playhouse is equipped with an intelligent lighting system that has abilities beyond old-style stage illumination. There are more than 200 light cues in this production, and the system works seamlessly to boost the mood for gun battles, death scenes, prostitution camps and emotional moments.
Les Misérables is well known as a bucket list item for many actors, and they turned out in droves to audition for the meaty roles. The music, at times soaring, at times heart-wrenching, demands robust voices — and this cast of 53 delivers.
Based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, the musical revolves around the story of Jean Valjean, a convict who served 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread, and his quest to redeem himself, all while being pursued by the relentless police inspector Javert.
Rand Smith plays Valjean, a role he's wanted since he saw the musical at the Palace Theatre in London in 1988.
"The No. 1 deal is Valjean needs to sing really well, and we are so lucky that (Smith) not only sings well but is an excellent actor," musical director Emi Stefanov said. "When he is on stage, you can't take your eyes off him."
Jason Mann fills the character of Javert to the brim with his distinctively rich, full-bodied voice.
The role of Fantine, a young woman forced into prostitution, was won by Kristen Rowell. During a dress rehearsal, tears were visible in her eyes as she performed I Dreamed a Dream.
Gavroche, a street urchin who joins the revolutionaries in the 1832 uprising, is portrayed alternately by two thespians, Ryder Yarbrough, 6, and Will Garrabrant, 7. Snapp said they were both so good, it was hard to choose.
And Hunter Patterson, 10, looks just like the iconic wide-eyed Cosette that adorns the show's publicity materials.
Providing comic relief to the production (Master of the House) are the wickedly droll innkeepers/pickpockets, Monsieur and Madame Thenardier.
"(Ed McNally and Cherie Albury) are so funny in their roles — they're a couple made in theater heaven," Stefanov said.
If you're considering going, don't procrastinate.
"We've sold out every seat, every performance for the past four-and-a-half years," playhouse president Andy Rufo said.
They expect the response to the show to be so great, they are considering adding more performances to the schedule.
Contact Terri Bryce Reeves at [email protected].
Editor's note: This article was edited to reflect the following correction: The Francis Wilson Playhouse is not the first community theater in the tri-county area (Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Pasco) to be awarded royalties to produce Les Miserables. Because of information from the theater, that status was incorrect in an article Sept. 5.