News Column

"Les Miserables"

October 18, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 18--In order for people to dream a dream, become master of the house and watch the French Revolution play out, everything needs to be big.

Looking at the gigantic backdrops and environments being built for Robidoux Resident Theatre's production of "Les Miserables," being performed Oct. 25 through 27 at the Missouri Theater, as well as its cast of 35 actors and actresses, co-directors Jeff Haney and Jeremy Eaton are starting out well.

RRT's production stands to have one of its biggest casts of the year, as well as one of the largest sets for the classic musical set during the French Revolution.

Based on the Victor Hugo book with music by Claude-Michel Sch nberg, the Broadway musical covers the decades-long rivalry between ex-convict Jean Valjean and policeman Javert.

After breaking his parole following a lengthy, arduous incarceration, Valjean sets out on an adventure where he encounters love, loss and friendship with a slew of now iconic characters, all while watching his back for the presence of Javert.

Taking up the legendary play, which he considers more of an opera, Haney says he recognized the rich history that comes with it, along with hefty expectations.

"(For) so many people, before 'Wicked,' this was their epitome of musical theatre," he says. "Any time you have Victor Hugo as your base, it works."

Interestingly, Haney has never actually seen "Les Miserables" in full, in either stage form or the popular 2012 movie.

"I was so overwhelmed, I just thought 'I can't take any of this.' And I was at home, I wasn't in a public place," he says, of the movie.

Eaton is on the other end of the spectrum. He can recall in vivid memory seeing the musical on Broadway in 1996 with this mother. It was the first musical he ever saw in the popular New York theatre district.

"It's a great show. I've been listening to the soundtrack ever since," he says.

For such a big production, it's a surprise that this will be the first project Eaton has directed at the Missouri Theater.

To get on the same page, Haney says the two hashed out what they wanted from the musical.

"We just went through, 'What scenes do you like?' 'What scene do you like?' and we just went (mimics checking off a list). And so we've just been gelling the visual so it looks like one person might have directed this," he says.

The goal for the two was to deliver a show that packs the emotional punch of Broadway while showing off St. Joseph's immense talent and allowing for some creative freedom.

Combining talent between seasoned RRT veterans such as Chuck Hazelwood, who plays Jean Valjean, and Missouri Western actors like Erik Burns-Sprung, who plays one-half of the comedic Thenardiers, along with Daisy Frisch, Haney and Eaton say it has been an incredible collaboration.

"It's delightful to see these 40-somethings work with these 20-somethings, and both sides are smart -- smart enough to learn from each other," Haney says. "Everybody's raising the bar."

Adding that his goal was to make sure the grit was kept largely intact, Eaton says he came into the musical wanting the cast to get their hands dirty. This is the French Revolution, after all.

"(I wanted) the dirtiness of it. Like how far can we push and still everybody be comfortable. That's a lot of the fun of it," he says.

To achieve that, they needed the setting to be gross and dirty, yet majestic enough to go along with the musical's soaring numbers.

Songs like Fantine's emotional "I Dreamed a Dream," made popular by an Oscar-winning performance by Anne Hathaway, or the uplifting ""Do You Hear the People Sing?" wouldn't have quite as much weight if the set didn't match up.

Leading construction of the sets, longtime RRT set designer Frank Polleck has helped build a massive environment that perfectly captures both the grand nature and rundown feel of 19th century France.

"This is right up his alley ... castles and stuff like this and 'Cats' and 'Rent' -- things that are just massively complex really work well in his brain," Haney says.

Though the directors worked with the cast for five weeks on songs before ever blocking anything, they say they were near spot-on since day one.

"There are moments in the music even early on that ... the sound was already there. So getting to tweak it a little bit and seeing the growth (of the cast), that was great," Eaton says.

That praise extended to the chorus of singers helping complete the enormous sound of songs like "One Day More" and the musical's rousing epilogue.

"It is, by far, one of the most talented choruses I've heard in a lot of places," Haney says.

Eaton adds: "By far."

The musical is a dream come true for RRT, as it was requested on an almost annual basis for years, and it's one Haney and Eaton admit they're anxious to see how people, both die-hard fans and newcomers, react to.

"It's been a wild experience," Eaton says.

Andrew Gaug can be reached at andrew.gaug@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPGaug.

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(c)2013 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)

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