News Column

Director assembles team to stage complex musical 'Les Miserables'

October 3, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 03--The Otterbein University Theatre and Dance and Music departments is pulling out all the stops for Les Miserables.

The epic musical, the biggest and most ambitious production in the history of the department, will open tonight in Cowan Hall.

So many people are needed to put on the show -- about 100 cast members, crew members and musicians -- that director Dennis Romer thought he couldn't stage it alone.

"It's the first time I've had to delegate this much," Romer said. " This is a deeply collaborative show."

Romer drafted several people to fill critical behind-the-scenes roles: Robert Behrens is the fight director, Heather White-Cotterman is the choreographer, Lori Kay Harvey is the music director and Rob Johnson is the set designer.

"For 20 years, we've wanted to do this show," Johnson said. " Les Miz is spectacular -- right up there with some of our biggest and best musicals."

The French team of composer Alain Boublil and lyricist Claude-Michel Schonberg conceived the musical and adapted it, with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, from Victor Hugo's 1862 novel about love and redemption in 19th-century France.

"It's a great story of humanity at its best and worst," Romer said.

"One minute, you're flying high; the next minute, someone is dying. It's obviously a melodrama, but the acting has to be real."

Johnson created a versatile Shakespearean set that incorporates a balcony, doorway and archway for different locales.

He also selected a warm palette of colors to highlight the emotions.

"I like to have some color in the set -- here, golds and creams and dark browns that reflect the half-timber and half-stucco of the architecture -- to reinforce the sense of hope," he said.

Romer and Johnson were inspired in part by the recent national tour of Les Miz, which came to town in May.

"What we really liked about the new tour was the elimination of the turntable, which opens up so many more possibilities for scenes and the ability to move quickly on the stage," Johnson said.

Romer, who has been trying to get the rights to stage the musical since 1994, has seen Les Miz eight times in New York, London and Columbus.

"My feeling was always that the turntable slows it down," Romer said.

"With today's greater use of digital and 3-D lighting that almost becomes part of the set, we can tell this story in a much simpler, clearer way, but it doesn't make it any less difficult."

Otterbein sophomore Jordan Donica, 19, plays Jean Valjean, the ex-convict who dedicates his life to helping others after a priest rescued him from returning to prison.

"Redemption is the biggest theme," he said.

"Jean Valjean has been misunderstood his whole life. When he feels the absolute love that can come from another human being, he starts living for someone other than himself."

Donica spent the past summer working on his songs, which include the solos Who Am I? and Bring Him Home and ensemble numbers such as In My Life and One Day More.

"I had to get my strength and stamina up to sing such a high and intense role," he said.

His favorite part of the score is the prologue, which dramatizes Valjean's imprisonment, escape and spiritual transformation.

"It's so emotionally charged," Donica said.

"The only way to do it well is to have that emotion and power and anger."

Otterbein senior Marina Pires plays Fantine, who sacrifices herself to save her daughter, Cosette.

"Fantine is a hard worker and a woman of God who was given a bad hand in life," said Pires, 21. " It's such an iconic role. ... I want to make sure she's a rounded character because it's such a short amount of time onstage."

Les Miz is Valjean's journey of redemption.

"But ultimately," Pires said, "each character finds their own hope, and their lives are redeemed as well."

mgrossberg@dispatch.com

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(c)2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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