News Column

Lights Go Up for 'Les Miserables'

August 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 01--"Les Miserables," the turbulent story of Jean Valjean in 19th-century France, is making its debut at Riverside Center Dinner Theater, bringing the favorite, heart- wrenching musical to the local stage.

Victor Hugo's epic saga, which has become more popular through the recent film, tells the journey of the French peasant who breaks his parole to start a new life but is persistently tracked down by police officer Javert. Set in revolutionary France, what unfolds is a tale of complicated love, a fight for freedom and unfortunate losses.

The production is in experienced hands under the direction of Riverside's artistic director, Patrick A'Hearn, who was part of the 1986 original Broadway ensemble.

A'Hearn spent three years with the show, landing the opportunity not only to act, but to assist the associate director in 1988.

His history with "Les Miserables," which included a production in San Francisco, gave him the chance to perform every male part in the play, except for Jean Valjean and the rascally innkeeper Monsieur Thenardier.

Through his ensemble role, A'Hearn worked closely with the original Tony-winning directors of the show: Trevor Nunn and co-director John Caird. He called them the "cr me de la cr me" of theater at the time.

"If you had ever wanted to have a crash course in the fine art of acting and how to create a character you couldn't learn under two finer men," A'Hearn said.

He explained that an ensemble role in "Les Miserables" is nothing short of a dream.

"Everybody has a solo; everybody has something to do in the show from the smallest part to the biggest part," he said. "This was a true actor's, vocalist's dream to be part of something with so much texture, character and passion."

He called his experience a "process with a very happy ending."

MAKING A MUSICAL

A'Hearn's history with the production brings even more meaning to the iconic show's Riverside debut.

In 2010, when A'Hearn heard that the show's rights would be open in 2013, he sent a letter to the original producer, Cameron Mackintosh, requesting the rights.

He received positive news back soon after, and the production process began.

Using his original notes, A'Hearn wanted the show to be as close as possible to the original staging.

The Riverside production features a large turntable, a staple from the Broadway musical that A'Hearn said was paramount.

The cast, handpicked by A'Hearn and whittled down from more than 250 auditions, features experienced actors and talented voices, A'Hearn said.

The first round of auditions were held in December 2012, with callbacks following later in March 2013. By the end of April, the show was cast, and rehearsals began at the end of May.

He said what the cast brings to the show "ups it another notch."

"I couldn't be more pleased," he said.

MEET THE DREAM TEAM

Playing Jean Valjean will be David Michael Felty, who has acted the part more than 500 times since his role in the international Broadway tour from 2001 until 2005.

Felty called the role "brutal," both emotionally and vocally, but said the audience response was very rewarding. "I don't know if it's because you've worked so hard, and they respect that, or they just fall in love with this character."

He said the Riverside cast members are another group giving their "heart and soul" to the show.

"Everyone who does this show should love it," Felty said.

Also starring with Felty are actors Thomas Adrian Simpson as Javert and Erin Miele Huss as Fantine.

This will be Simpson's first time at Riverside. He and A'Hearn became friends while working together on the musical "1776" at Ford's Theatre and shared the long commute to D.C.

Simpson has worked in many theaters in the D.C. area, including the Signature Theatre in Arlington, where he had the understudy role of Javert.

Simpson said he and A'Hearn have a "very good" working relationship, with "a lot of commonality as far as what we think good theater is and what theater can be," he said.

Because of the continuous singing throughout the musical, "it's almost operatic," he said. "You have to find, within the confines of the music, the expressions of the character, which can be difficult but you also have the music to support you at all times."

Huss, who sang through college at the University of Tennessee, served as the choral director at West Springfield High School for four years. She has experience in lead roles such as Millie Dillmount in "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Huss also starred as Eva Peron in "Evita" four years ago at Riverside, under the direction of A'Hearn. She said the role allowed her to grow as both an actor and a singer.

There is a big contrast between the roles of Fantine and Evita, she explained, even though they both die in the play (ironically, in the same bed). While Eva Peron is a historically disliked character, Fantine is "very loved," she said.

Huss said she "related to [Fantine] a lot more on a deeper level."

A'Hearn hopes that Fredericksburg-area residents will come out to see a show he calls "incredibly moving."

Regina Weiss: 540/374-5417 -- rweiss@freelancestar.com

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