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Stage West gets okay to produce Les Misérables

For 25 years, you could ask almost any ambitious community theater group the one show they would most like to do, and the same name would come up time and again: Les Misérables.

Based on French writer Victor Hugo's classic novel set in 19th century France, it's a timeless story of love, redemption, revolution and human frailties, with music to make you weep with joy and characters to break your heart.

It opened in London in 1985 and has been running ever since — at one point, in three different venues. It played Broadway for 6,680 performances from 1987 through 2003 and again from 2006 to 2008, and has played in 42 countries in 21 languages.

But, for some unknown reason, the licensing company and those who own the performance rights haven't allowed community theaters to do the show.

Until last Friday, that is, when Stage West Community Playhouse was granted the right to do the full-blown, Broadway version of Les Mis, as it's affectionately known, in November 2013.

"We will be one of the first (community theaters) to do this show in the area," said Barbara Everest, president of the theater's board of directors. "We have been looking to do this for years, kept on checking the (license company's web) site and checking the site for it to come up. We signed for MTI (Music Theatre International) to notify us when it was available. We got an email last week and put our application in immediately. They responded within 24 hours, and we got the signed contract."

And the theaters leaders went wild.

"We've been screaming for three days," Everest said.

Although all the details — director, whether to rent or make costumes, how to do the complicated set — are still up in the air, Stage West decided to announce that it will do the show so that top actors in the area will make plans to be available during the rehearsal and performance period.

"We want to reach people not only in Hernando County, but also in Pasco and Pinellas," Everest said.

Hopefuls should expect a lot of competition for parts. Les Mis is the kind of show that actors want to do and are willing to drive long distances in order to play a part. It has many plum roles and gorgeous music, so the drive would be worth it.

The show may be part of the regular season, or it may be presented as a "special," much as the Straz Center in Tampa does with premium properties such as American Idiot and The Book of Mormon, which can be extended beyond season ticket times or played as standalones.

Patrons might expect a higher ticket price, too, as the show is costly to do. Many of the players do as many as five characters (soldier, farmer, prisoner, cleric, sailor, for example) with five different costumes from hat to shoes. The sets are large and complicated, and expensive, though it's likely that the professional Show Palace Dinner Theatre down the road will allow its creative staff to help out, as it's done in the past.

The show will be a huge challenge for Stage West, but this is a theater that welcomes challenges both on its large Main Stage (Man of La Mancha, Into the Woods, Chicago, Sweeney Todd, for example) and in the Forum, which has seen some really awesome performances (Death of a Salesman, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Proof, Doubt).

Interestingly, the movie version of Les Mis will be released next month, with Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried as stars.

For those thinking that the movie coming out so close to the Stage West version would hurt the local theater's ticket sales, just remember that the movie version of Chicago came out not all that long before Stage West did that show, and not only did Chicago do so well that the local bunch had to add a performance, they closed the show with a waiting list of people who couldn't get a ticket.