Arts and Entertainment

'Les Misérables': Musical makes first appearance in local theatres

Wilkes third grader, Caroline Payne, plays the role of the Young Cosette in Ovation!
Wilkes third grader, Caroline Payne, plays the role of the Young Cosette in Ovation!'s new production 'Les Misérables.'
— image credit: Keith Brofsky photo

Last winter, in the shadow of Hollywood’s cinematic version of the musical, the famed Boublil/Schönberg classic “Les Misérables” announced that it was releasing rights to local theatre stages for the first time since its arrival to Broadway and Europe in the 1980s.

One Bainbridge Island theatre jumped on it, resulting in Ovation!’s announcement for a spring performance of the musical to open June 21.

Ovation!’s production will be the first showing in the Northwest since the work was made available. And the proximity between stage and audience adds a whole new quality to the performance that professional theatre groups like those on Broadway cannot do in a hall fit for hundreds.

“It can be very exciting for a local theatre,” said Marijane Milton of Ovation! “You’re just a few feet away.”

Set in 19th century, post-revolutionary France, “Les Misérables” is a complex drama that follows former Prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean, who after 19 years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread, is released on parole.

With his status as an ex-convict, however, he realizes that life after prison is not entirely different from prison itself. He is soon elbowed into the societal misery of a war-torn France that grays the lines between good and bad, lowly and hungry.

In the end, Valjean and the web of characters and sorrows that surround him are confronted with the student-led June Rebellion and the possibilities that lay beyond the barricades.

But, Milton explained, the message of the play is not about the barricade.

“It’s ‘to love another person is to see the face of God again,’” she said.

“And, as humans, we will mess up, again and again,” added music director Todd Hulet.

There is a reason why this production remained on Broadway for 27 years. And in Ovation!’s intimate performance, these underlying emotions are illustrated out front in a theatrical performance that connects actors, music and audience in one fell swoop.

“Our hallmark is to choose a show that improves the human condition,” director Ron Milton explained.

Ovation! was one week away from announcing its spring line-up of shows when “Les Misérables” made its sudden announcement to open for local theatres. The Miltons and Hulet wasted no time to change their plans.

Poulsbo resident Michelle Lorenz-Odell, who plays the role of Cosette’s mother, Fantine, is performing for the first time with Ovation! though she has made numerous appearances in Seattle theatre.

Up until now, Lorenz-Odell has been off the stage for four years following the birth of her twin daughters.

“If I had approached this role even five years ago it wouldn’t have been the same,” Lorenz-Odell said.

“I’m in tears almost every rehearsal. The part where she’s giving away her daughter, I think of my girls.”

Like many of the actors and actresses who showed up to Ovation!’s  auditions for “Les Misérables,” this is a dream role for Lorenz-Odell. She was one of 200 who auditioned for a part in the production, a record for the theatre group. Ovation! is the first non-professional acting company in the region to open auditions for the musical, so they received applicants from all over the region eager to be part of it. One applicant sent in a video audition from Italy.

Hulet, Milton and production manager Marijane Milton held one call-back audition where they put the applicants through the ringer with the most difficult material on the script.

In the end, they narrowed it down to a 38-person cast.

By opening day, the Ovation!’s “Les Misérables” production will have been working together for four months.

The professional production comes with a $20 million set and a rotating barricade for set changes. With a tight budget and restrictions against making use of a rotating barricade, Ovation! still does it all.

Without a rotating barricade, the longest set change is 18 seconds long. And it is the longest by nine seconds.

“It’s been liberating to reimagine it,” Ron Milton said.

But Milton and Hulet have worked to remain as honest to the original production as possible for both music and stage performance.

“We’ve tried to stay completely true to the music,” Hulet said. “It’s why this show, to me, works.”

This will be Hulet’s sixth and final production with Ovation! before moving to New York City in the fall. And it’s a biggie.

The musical is about 340 pages of straight song. There is no break in music.

“It’s like running a marathon as opposed to a sprint,” Milton explained.

Over the past four months, the actors have built the endurance and the memorization it takes to perform the show.

It requires lead singers, men’s chorus, women’s chorus and several songs with the whole cast singing into the audience.

In accompaniment is a live orchestra of 16 musicians. It includes percussion, keyboards, woodwinds, brass and strings. It will be the largest orchestra the group has yet to use, and the first thing they did for the production, Hulet said, was redesign the orchestra shell to accommodate the extra sound the musical would require.

“As a pit orchestra, your job is to support the story,” Hulet explained. “Only live musicians could do that, because we as humans don’t experience things the same way twice.”

The music is a melody-driven performance that Hulet says is so big it’ll overflow into the audience.

“We all cry at some point in rehearsal,” Marijane Milton said. “Our goal is for people to be touched in some way.”

The lead actors and actresses for Ovation!’s “Les Misérables” are Royce Napolitino as Jean Valjean, Michelle Lorenz-Odell as Fantine, Tom Burt as Javert, Nelsen Spickard as Monsieur Thernardier, Marijane Milton as Madame Thernardier, Lance Zielinski as Marius, Christie Fitch as Cosette, Cade Strong as Enjolras the leader of the student rebellion, Claire Elizabeth Dann as Eponine, Priya Niehaus as the spirited boy Gavroche, and Caroline Payne as Young Cosette.

There will be nine performances held at the Bainbridge High School Theatre (no affiliation) at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays. Opening night will be Friday, June 21 and the show will go on through Sunday, July 7.

Tickets are on sale now for $27, adults; $22, seniors 65+/students/military; and $19 for youth. They can be purchased at Winslow Drug, online at brownpapertickets.com or by phone at 1-800-838-3006. Tickets will also be sold at the door.

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