News Column

GREAT Theatre's 'Les Miserables' aims for 'le magnifique'

September 5, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 05--It's an iconic show. It's musically challenging. And it's a big production. So just what motivated GREAT Theatre to take on "Les Miserables"?

"I think we like a challenge. We like to set the bar high ... and surprise audiences with our hard work," Executive Director Dennis Whipple said. "Go big or go home."

They're trying to do just that with the production that runs Friday through Sept. 22 at the Paramount Theatre in downtown St. Cloud.

"People have a lot of choices for entertainment," he said. "We want to be as big ... give that big, grand-type musicals."

Whipple said there's a bucket list of productions he'd like to see done in Central Minnesota, and "Les Miserables" is in the top four.

"For us, it's a title I think we can produce," he said. "It has great songs, and great characters and great drama."

A first

The community theater is one of the first in the state to tackle the production.

The cast includes 38 Central Minnesota actors ages 10 to 54. More than 250 people auditioned.

The show stages Victor Hugo's novel and is the world's longest-running musical. Set in 19th century France, convict Jean Valjean is on the run, hunted by policeman Javert for breaking his parole. He aims to keep his vow to raise orphaned Cosette.

Director Rick Cicharz took some time before agreeing to do the show.

"I was taken aback by the offer," said Cicharz, who wanted to be sure he could do it justice. "The show is so well known."

He wanted to make sure he had a good musical director to work with and that they were able to find talent. He said he was confident he could do the staging, but he needed someone with a strong musical focus.

Enter Andre Heywood, director of the St. John's Boys Choir. He has collaborated with GREAT before but was flattered to be asked.

"It's one of my absolutely favorite shows. I've always dreamt of being involved. ... It's a huge undertaking," he said.

He's hoping the production will make a new crop of musical theater lovers in Central Minnesota.

"I first saw the show as a teenager, and I was moved by it," Heywood said. "Part of my goal is to help others along in experiencing that as well ... to come away with some emotional attachment."

Casting

Heywood and Cicharz were both worried about finding the level of musical talent for the show in Central Minnesota. To put it mildly, they were shocked by the casting turnout: 258 people auditioned.

"That, we were not prepared for," Whipple said. "Some people were auditioning at 11:30 at night. ... It was an exciting audition process."

Every role had multiple people vying for it. Whipple said the theater company probably could have cast the show twice if it wanted to. And, it's local talent from the Central Minnesota region.

"It was a director's dream," Cicharz said.

The cast has a lot of music teachers, some who would be leads in other stories in their own right.

"They're loving it. They're grateful to be there," he said.

Heywood said all the talent has meant he's needed to step up to the plate.

"It was an inviting challenge for me, to keep their interest and to challenge them to be better," he said.

Production

Once they had a cast, the directors solidified a set design, because to block (determining the actors' movements on stage), they needed to do so with a set in mind.

Otherwise, Cicharz said, "It could throw the whole thing off."

The musically demanding and intricate score has meant they've spent a lot of time learning challenging notes, Heywood said. He's also done a lot to emphasize the emotive aspects.

It's important to drill the music while doing the blocking, using movements to emphasize parts of the music.

"We try to rehearse things in context as much as possible," he said. "We do a lot of identifying key words that we want the audience to catch, key words to help actors to understand the mood here."

Marc Sanderson of Sartell, who plays Jean Valjean, said he started learning the score in May, and thought he had it pretty well memorized.

"Then they started throwing blocking at me," he said. He not only had to sing on cue, but also the acting and reacting in sync with others on the stage.

Sanderson said the role was on his bucket list.

"It's a lifelong dream," he said. So much so that he's been growing his hair out at the off chance he'd get cast in the role. (He insists that's a true story.)

But it's only Sanderson's second time on stage. He grew up in a musical family, but doesn't have the stage pedigree.

The depth of talent in the cast is phenomenal, he said.

"But it's also nerve-wracking. ... It sets expectations extremely high," Sanderson said. "I hope to do the role justice."

Teamwork

Cicharz, who's a teacher and drama director at Sartell Middle School, said he wanted to stay as true to the book and the story as possible, as well as the characters.

"Sometimes, when you have such an experienced cast, they forget the basics," he said.

So he emphasized things like gesturing, body movement and reaction. He also worked to create a team atmosphere, doing team-building exercises.

"None of us could pull off a show like this on our own," he said.

Cicharz also explored the major themes of the play, such as the toll poverty can take on people. They had discussions about it, having people disclose their own experiences with poverty.

Cicharz said he also discussed the spiritual aspect of the show. Each main character experiences what God is to them.

For convict Jean Valjean, God is true love. For mother Fontine, God is family and the power of the mother-daughter relationship.

For policeman Javer, God is power and control, and that view eventfully ends his life. For the Thenardiers, God doesn't exist.

Between the recent movie version starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, and other productions, audiences have other options to see the "Les Miserables" story. But Sanderson said there are key differences in a live performance.

He's noticed things on stage he didn't see or resonate in the film, and vice versa.

He's been asked more than once if Central Minnesota can pull off this show, he said.

His answer: "I promise you, the audience will be blown away."

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(c)2013 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.)

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