July 25--The nine actors were learning how to die.
Director Rody Gilkeson gave each a wood spindle to use as a gun as they prepared to rehearse their scene as students defending the barricade in Paris against the police.
As the sound of gunshots blared from the speakers, one by one the actors crumpled on the ground until only Ian Gilkeson, as student leader Enjolras, remained standing, defiantly waving a flag. Another shot rang out and he, too, collapsed on the railing.
Notre Dame Summer Theatre is hoping to rattle the roof of the auditorium at Note Dame High School in Bethlehem Township with the Lehigh Valley's community theater premiere of "Les Miserables," featuring a cast of 50 local actors and soaring songs such as "Do You Hear the People Sing?," "One Day More" and "I Dreamed a Dream."
It is riding the wave of popularity of the unlikely hit Broadway musical, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2010 and spread its power with an Oscar-nominated 2012 feature film starring Hugh Jackman, Ann Hathaway and Allentown native Amanda Seyfried.
What started as a 19th century French historical novel about an unsuccessful uprising after the French Revolution has become the one of the longest-running and most-beloved musicals in Broadway history.
The story is based on the nearly 1,500-page book written in 1862 by Victor Hugo. Hugo who had been a witness to the student uprising of 1832, fashioned the fictional story of ex-convict Jean Valjean, who becomes caretaker of Cosette, the daughter of poor factory worker Fantine, around the real life events.
Rody Gilkeson plays the lead role of Jean Valjean, as well as directs the production.
In 2010, Gilkeson founded Notre Dame Summer Theatre with the goal of raising money for scholarships and raising awareness of Notre Dame High School, where Gilkeson teaches.
He played the lead in three of the group's four productions, including "Evita" and "Kiss Me Kate," and says it is a challenge to both star in and direct a show.
"I don't always cast myself," he says, noting he did not play a lead in 2011's "My Fair Lady." "But there was no question going in I was going to play Jean Valjean. I told people upfront."
He says the scenes in which he acts are videotaped so he can watch later.
Gilkeson's wife Elizabeth Marsh-Gilkeson always plays his leading lady, and in "Les Miserables" she plays the showcase role of Fantine, the down on her luck factory worker who sings the hit "I Dreamed a Dream."
For the first time, Gilkeson's son Ian, who plays Enjolras, is performing with his parents.
"He hasn't done anything since high school," Gilkeson says. "He stunned me with how good he is."
Gilkeson says it was a lucky break that the group got the rights to the show, which has been on tour and is returning to Broadway in 2014. He says when it reopens on Broadway, the rights will no longer be available.
Cameron Mackintosh's production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Sch nberg's musical opened on Broadway in 1987 and won seven Tony Awards, including best musical. The show ran for 15 years, until 2003, and was revived in 2006. The show will have its second revival next March.
'It's one of my all-time favorite shows," Gilkeson says. "I never thought we would get the opportunity to do it. But one day I got a message from Music Theater International that is was available and I immediately put in for the rights. We were lucky. It's daunting but really great stuff."
The show was just released by MTI this year, but "Les Miserables School Edition" has been previously been produced by area high schools.
The school edition cuts about a half an hour of material from the full version. The school show was produced in 2008 by both Emmaus and Parkland high schools on the same weekend and the rivalry became a key part of the 2011 documentary "Most Valuable Players" about the 2008 Freddy Awards, a program celebrating excellence in music theater presented by the State Theatre in Easton. The show also was presented by Freedom High School in April.
Gilkeson says he knew the show had the potential to be a big draw.
Gilkeson says more than 100 people came out for auditions.
The tenacious police inspector Javert is played by Rob Clausnitzer, whose son plays street urchin Gavroche.
Patrick Davis plays Marius and sisters Samantha and Madeline Prentice, respectively, play Eponine and Cosette, who vie for Marius' attention.
The villainous innkeeper Thenardier and his wife are played by Ted Williams and Mary Catherine Bracali.
The original Broadway production was known for its huge barricade on a revolving stage, something that isn't feasible at Notre Dame. Instead, the set features a smaller barricade in the center and uses the sides of the stage for other locations such as the docks and Jean Valjean's home. Gilkeson says they also had to extend the Notre Dame stage out by 12 feet.
"It's not Broadway but a good community theater," Gilkeson says. "What we're trying to do is give people a fairly inexpensive evening of theater."
The music is prerecorded which is "not very forgiving" Gilkeson says. However he says "the cast is really strong."
Marsh-Gilkeson also is doing the costumes and runs the box office -- "pretty much doing everything," Gilkeson says.
-- What: Notre Dame Summer Theatre presents the Lehigh Valley community theater premiere of the Broadway hit musical "Les Miserables."
-- When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Aug. 2 and 3, 2 p.m. Sunday and Aug. 4
-- Where: Notre Dame High School, 3417 Church Road, Bethlehem Township.
-- How much: $18, adults; $15, students and seniors.
-- Info: 610-252-1067 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
-- What else: "Les Miserables" also is being performed this weekend and Aug. 1-4 at the Music Box Dinner Playhouse, Swoyersville, Luzerne County. The shows include a performance and a buffet. Info: 800-698-PLAY, http://www.musicbox.org.
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