How can a Broadway musical almost 30 years old based on a French novel published more than 150 years ago still have cultural relevance? Consider this: At the barricades in Hong Kong during recent pro-democracy demonstrations, protesters have been singing, “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” the rousing call to arms of “Les Misérables.” One songwriter with Occupy Central, the organizers of the Hong Kong protest, even wrote a Cantonese-language version with lyrics adapted for the protests.
“Goodness, it’s relevant right today,” said Lance Petersen, stage director of the Pier One Production of “Les Misérables.”
Last seen here as a Homer High School musical in 2003, “Les Misérables” returns to the Mariner Theatre, opening for the first of two weekends at 7 p.m. Friday.
The Pier One production brings back Petersen and retired Homer High School choir director Mark Robinson, musical director in 2003 and today. Joining them is the current choir director, Kyle Schneider, as Jean Valjean, the main character. Several high school graduates in the 2003 version also are in the new production, including Katelyn Wythe and Van Hawkins. Wythe played Eponine and Van Hawkins was a stage technician. They both now play student revolutionaries. The new cast is packed with many of Robinson’s former choir students and also pulls in talent from the Kenai Peninsula Community Choir and the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra.
It’s an all-ages production, with middle school students playing roles of street urchins, high school and 20-somethings as revolutionaries and middle-aged adults in roles that require a bit of gray hair. Rounding out the cast are veteran Pier One actors, like Peter Norton as Javert.
“The depth of talent in this cast is astounding to me for a town this size,” Robinson said. “There are so many tremendous voices.”
Based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, “Les Misérables” — “the miserable ones” in English — has a convoluted plot that can drive literature majors to madness.
“There’s so much depth there about human nature, politics, religion, philosophy and revolution,” Robinson said. “It’s an astounding piece of literature.”
Playwright and lyricist Alain Boubil and composer Claude-Michel Schonberg adapted the book into what’s technically an opera, where every word is sung. “Les Misérables” opened on Broadway in 1985 and has now set the record for longest running musical. In 2012 it was made into a movie.
“Les Misérables” spans 17 years and follows paroled prisoner Jean Valjean as he’s chased across France by his nemesis, Inspector Javert. After being shown mercy by a kind bishiop, Valjean changes his identity and becomes a distinguished citizen, a factory owner and mayor. Cosette, the illegitimate daughter of Fantine, a worker at Valjean’s factory, is taken in by the Thernardiers, who own an inn, and treated harshly. Valjean later adopts Cosette and takes her away to Paris, but Javert pursues him still.
Years later, there is unrest in Paris because General Lamarque, the only leader kind to the poor, is close to death. One student revolutionary leader, Marius, falls in love with Cosette, though he is loved by Eponine, the Thernardiers’ daughter. When Larmarque dies, the students rise up, building a barricade.
“Overall it’s an emotional rollercoaster. There’s despair and there’s great aspiration and hope,” said Petersen. “There’s falling in love and having all your hopes dashed, up and down the emotional scale.”
It’s that emotional scale that drew Wythe back to the musical.
“It’s about being human. There’s the revolution and the political aspect,” she said. “It’s about human emotion. It will always be resonant as long as there are human beings.”
The chance to be in “Les Misérables” also drew Wythe back to Homer. For the past 10 years she has lived in Oregon, getting bachelor’s degrees in vocal performance and health care administration at George Fox University, Newburg. She also studied at the Portland Actors Conservatory. When Wythe got an email last spring that auditions were open for “Les Misérables,” she knew she had to come home.
“The opportunity to do it again with the same creative team — it was too good to pass up,” Wythe said.
Being in the high school production and now the community production, Wythe said she’s struck by the broad mix of ages, particularly older actors in roles played by high school students.
“To see those parts played by more age-appropriate actors is fantastic,” she said. “It makes for such a dynamic cast. It brings so many different pieces of emotion to the stage. That’s really, really wonderful. I’m super excited by this production.”
Other than the range of actors, the 2003 and current productions of “Les Misérables” are fairly similar, Robinson said. He and Petersen have changed some of the sung dialogue — “recitative” as it’s called in opera — to spoken dialogue.
“There are some places the story line is easier to convey if it’s just brief spoken dialogue than to sing every single thing,” Robinson said.
“Les Misérables” includes several songs that have become popular hits, like “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Master of the House, “ Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” The tunes borrow from each other, weaving in and out, Robinson noted.
“It’s not campy. It’s not an inside joke,” he said of the composers. “They are stirring some kind of emotion in a subliminal way. … It’s very clever, very brilliantly done.”
Another change in this production is the building of the barricade in act two. For a complex set, often theater technicians build it in parts and roll it on stage. For this production, the actors become stage technicians and build the barricade while the curtain’s up, conveying the drama of a key plot element.
The sets in “Les Misérables” are simple but powerful, such as the street scene backdrop, painted by Jennifer Norton, Bobby Copeland-McKinney, Judy Wynn and Jill Berryman.
At dress rehearsals Sunday as the production went into what’s called “hell week,” not every detail was to Robinson’s satisfaction, he said, but it looked to be shaping up as a strong example of the power of small-town community theater. People sang full of passion and emotion.
Wythe said between working and rehearsals she has been incredibly tired — and ecstatic.
“I have never in my life been so happy to be exhausted,” she said. “This is a privilege to get to do this.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Pier One Theatre production
Oct. 10-12, Oct. 16-19
7 p.m. Friday, Saturday
3 p.m. Sunday
7 p.m. Oct. 16, 17,18
3 p.m. Oct. 19
$18, general; $16, seniors; $15 Raven’s Club; $10 youth under 21; $60 family, two adults and children; $10 all seats on Oct. 12 and Oct. 16
On sale at the Homer Bookstore, River City Books (Soldotna), Cover to Cover (Seward), and at the door. For reservations, call 235-7333
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Book and original lyrics by Alain Boubil
Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg
Lance Petersen, stage director
Mark Robinson, musical director
Jill Berryman, choreographer
Laura Norton, production manager, assistant director
Jean Valjean: Kyle Schneider
Javert: Peter Norton
Cosette: Sunrose Olsen
Little Cosette: Elsa Pietsch
Marius: Nathan Lander
Enjolras: August Kilcher
Thernardier: Kurtis Jackson
Mme. Thernardier: Hannah Heimbuch
Bishop: David Schneider
Foreman: Brian Duffy
Constable: Michael McKinney
Fantine: Brittany Bradshaw
Eponine: Maura Jones
Gavroche: Shenandoah Lush
Pimp: Ken Landfield
Bamatbois: Hal Spence
Student Revolutionaries: Owen Duffy, August Kilcher, Marc Oliver, Van Hawkins, Mark Walsworth, Peter Sheppard, Nolan Bunting, Evan Boyer, Carolyn Norton, Emmy Olson, Megan Kirsis, Claire Swanson, Katelyn Wythe, Katie Gotika, Jennifer Norton, Sierra Smith, Taylor Davis, Jenni Medley
Gavroche’s Gang: Falcom Greear, Lindsey Schneider, Gaylen Lyon, Teddy Handley, Landon Bunting, Joshua Bradshaw
Factory Workers: Lenore Swanson, Lisa Klein-Kirsis, Victoria Wilson-Winne, Suzanne Singer-Alvarez, Beth Miller, Brenda Dolma, Mary-Ann Snowden, Sunrise Sjoeberg, Margaret Quarton
Chain Gang, Townspeople, Sailors: Rene Alvarez, John Anderson, Bryan Hawkins, Michael Pate, Jonathan Seneff, Heather Reichenberg, Bobbi Paulino-McKinney, Louise Seguela, Leah Handley, Sara Karnos, Nancy Chastain, Maggie McCormick