July 11--WATERLOO -- After nearly 30 years, the dream is coming true for retiring Waterloo Community Playhouse Artistic Director Charles Stilwill.
He will be directing one of the stage's most famous and popular musicals, the iconic "Les Miserables." The WCP production opens today and is on the boards for performances through July 20.
"I thought I'd retire never having directed it. I've waited a long time for the rights to become available to community theaters. The window of opportunity was open for a short time, then closed again. If you didn't secure the rights this time, it will be a long time before that window opens again," explains Stilwill.
He's listened to recording on a regular basis since the 1980s and has seen it performed on the London stage, as well as touring companies in Des Moines and a scaled-down production at Chanhassen (Minn.)Dinner Theatre.
"By the time I first saw the show, I'd heard it about 100 times. I bought the paperback book of Victor Hugo's novel and re-read it while I listened to the music," he recalls.
Now is his moment. "Some people see the show as depressing, others as uplifting and some as a bit of both. I think, 'who can't be uplifted by the music?', and so many positive things happen in the story. There are incredible roles -- no minor cast members -- and there isn't anyone in the show who isn't a soloist. Other shows can't say that," Stilwill notes.
"Les Miserables," affectionately known as "Les Miz," is a sung-through musical based on Hugo's novel set in 19th century France. It is the story of Jean Valjean (Brian McCarty), a French peasant seeking redemption and other characters caught up in a revolution with students who make their last stand at a street barricade.
Songs such as "One Day More," "Do You Hear the People Sing," "On My Own," "I Dreamed a Dream," "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," "Stars" and "A Heart Full of Love" are beloved by musical theater fans, and Stilwill says he's got an "incredible 42-member cast" who can sing this operatic drama. Many performers are cast in multiple roles.
There are 167 costume changes and 173 lighting cues, as well sound cues for gunfire and explosions.
"This show and the role of Valjean has been emotional for me," McCarty says. "It's a dream role for any actor/singer, and the music has such depth. This whole cast has an insane amount of talent, and I get to stand in front of them and hear them. It's amazing. We've all worked hard to bring this massive beast of a show to the stage."
Another WCP veteran Kyle Beermann of La Porte City, cast as Bishop, is sharing the stage with his wife, Kristin, playing the prostitute Fantine, and son Asher, who plays the street urchin Gavroche.
"Mostly because they forced me," says the impish Asher, when asked about being in the show. "I guess I'm liking it OK -- and I don't have to cut my hair all summer."
Kyle credits "Les Miz" and "Phantom of the Opera" for igniting his interest in theater. On a London exchange trip in the 1990s, he listened to the soundtrack for 12 hours straight. "It's the first big show to encompass everything musical theater should be," he explains.
Neal Petersen of Waterloo agrees. Cast as Enjorlas, leader of the student revolution, he is loving playing such a "charismatic guy who gets all these people to follow him," while Josh Pannhoff of Cedar Falls, playing Grantaire, says, "When I'm standing back stage, I'm singing along with the music. I feel blessed to be a part of it."
Nolan Baker of Waverly plays student revolutionary Marius. "I sing 'Empty Chairs at Empty Tables' when my brothers -- in-arms are wiped out at the barricade. He suffers and wallows in why he lived and they died. It's a great show."
Alta Schwab, in the role of Cosette, is relishing her role. "It's beautiful soprano role, but all music is wonderful. I love how so many melodies and songs show up throughout the entire show, perfectly woven together."
Opera singer Rosemary Gast and her husband Daniel of Cedar Falls, are cast as the Thenardiers, duplicitious innkeepers who provide comic relief as well as dark moments. "I enjoy her [Madame] a lot because when she does something, she does it large, and it's fun to be the antagonist," says Rosemary Gast.
Three front rows in the Hope Martin Theatre have been swallowed up by the jutting stage. Those who are seated at the front of the house can literally reach out and touch the actors. "We're using every inch of the stage, doing big scenes and big moments and taking it right out into the audience. We're also using the aisles extensively," Stilwill adds.
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