Stage West Community Playhouse has tackled some big, complicated and difficult shows — Chicago, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and Into the Woods, to name a few — but now this ambitious theater company is taking on one of the biggest and most difficult ever, the majestic epic Les Misérables, opening Nov. 7 and continuing weekends through Nov. 24.
The Stage West production has 42 actor-singers, some of them playing multiple roles, all attired in early 19th century costumes. The show is sung-through, that is, told almost completely in 50 songs, including reprises, many that have become familiar singles — I Dreamed a Dream, Castle On a Cloud, Do You Hear the People Sing?, One Day More, On My Own, Bring Him Home. This means HAMI-winning stage and choral directors Barbara Everest and Bobbi Moger had to find more than three dozen strong voices, including at least three under the age of 10.
Based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, Les Mis takes place in Paris from 1815 to 1832, a time of rebellion, class conflict, crushing poverty for many and unimaginable riches for a few. It tells the stories of many people in many situations, but all their lives are touched by Jean Valjean (Brian Beach, who shared the role of Valjean with Stage West understudy Rick Faurote in Plant City Entertainment's Les Mis in July). Valjean spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to give to his starving sister, but after his release he has become wealthy and respected.
Even so, he is relentlessly pursued by the self-righteous Inspector Javert (W. Paul Wade, HAMI as Will in Bus Stop), who believes that there can be no repentance or redemption and that no matter what his good deeds may be or whom he may help, Valjean should be in prison because he broke the bureaucratic conditions of his parole.
The musical is divided into three time periods. The first takes place when Valjean is released from prison and seems headed toward a life of crime but is diverted by a compassionate bishop (Doug Stone), who turns his life around. The second comes eight years later, after Valjean has changed his name, become the owner of a prosperous factory and mayor of the town. He rescues the once-beautiful Fantine (Victoria Primosch, HAMI for Roxy in Chicago) from a life in the streets and, as she dies, promises to take care of her 8-year-old illegitimate daughter, Cosette (Ashleigh Dudek/Trinity Walz). The child has been living with the rapacious innkeepers Madame Thénardier (Leanne Germann, HAMI as Reno in Anything Goes) and her husband (Chuck DePalo, HAMI, Arthur in Camelot). He more or less purchases the child from the Thénadiers and rears her as his own.
Nine years later, Cosette is grown (Brittany Burdette) and is in love with the young university student Marius (Ryan Bintz, HAMI as Billy Flynn in Chicago). Marius has joined his friend Enjolras (Marcellus in The Music Man) and a group of other idealistic young men who wage what will go down in history as the 1832 Paris Uprising, a two-day battle with the king's army. Valjean takes the side of the rebels, and the Thénardiers, by this time living in poverty, arrive to steal from the dead and wounded fighters.
Though the Thénadiers provide much-needed comic relief by their over-the-top antics, the musical is more a heart-rending operatic melodrama, as beloved characters die or are killed as the story moves to his eventual happy ending.
Les Mis opened in London in October 1985 and continues there to this day. It played Broadway from March 1987 to mid May 2003, again from 2006 to 2008 and is scheduled to play again in March 2014. It won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Book and Score, has been translated into 22 languages, and has played in 42 countries to more than 65 million people.
Because the show is expensive to present, Stage West has raised the ticket price to $20 for adults, $15 for students. In anticipation of high demand (hint: buy tickets ASAP), the run has been extended from the usual two weekends to three. The show is lengthy (upward of three hours) and complex, so is best suited for folks 12 and older.