‘Musical of all musicals:' Amherst Leisure Services presents ‘Les Mis’ at UMass Amherst

Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2014

Leaders at the Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater jumped at the chance to stage the Broadway hit “Les Misérables” when its producers offered it to community theaters around the country last spring.

“This was the first musical I ever fell in love with and it was the first musical CD I ever owned,” said Dave Grout, director of the Amherst production of “Les Mis,” which runs at Bowker Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst from Jan. 16 to January 26. “It has been a passion project for all of us. It’s the musical of all musicals.”

The longest-running musical in history, “Les Misérables” is based upon the Victor Hugo novel of the same name and is set in post-revolutionary 19th-century France, featuring a student revolt known as the June Rebellion or Paris Uprising of 1832. The musical tells the story of Jean Valjean, who is released after spending 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Valjean has been rejected by society, but becomes a better man through the help of a bishop and later takes on a new identity, rising to become a factory owner and mayor. All the while, though, Valjean is being chased by a police officer named Javert, who knows his real name and is after him because he has broken parole.

Valjean takes custody of a young child whose single mother, Fantine, a former factory worker whom he fired, has turned to prostitution to support her daughter, Cosette. Valjean promises at Fantine’s deathbed to take care of Cosette, who later, as a young woman, ends up in a love triangle between the student revolutionary Marius and a poor street thief named Eponine. Caring for Cosette sets Valjean’s life on a new path. The show touches on themes of revolution, personal identity, the plight of the poor, religion and social class.

Barbara Pistrang, assistant director of the ALSCT production, called “Les Misérables” a departure from the theater’s typical shows, which have been staged at Bowker over the past two decades.

“We generally do shows that are more family-oriented, with lots of little kids in them, so this is a bit unusual for us,” she said. “It’s in celebration of our 21st year, a sort of coming-of-age thing where we chose to do something more adult-oriented.”

Due to mature themes, such as prostitution, crime, war scenes and violence, the show is not recommended for young children, the directors said. It also features the use of strobe lights, stage fog and loud noises, including the sound of gunshots. Still, Grout said, it is a classic musical that will appeal to upper-elementary-age schoolchildren and older.

Grout said many of the theater folks at ALSCT have wanted to do “Les Mis” for ages, but it had never been released for local production until this past spring, and even then, was made available for only a brief period. Because it is such a landmark production, a sort of Holy Grail for aficionados of musicals, Grout said the pressure is on to make it as great as possible. Some 220 people auditioned for 55 parts in the musical.

“Any show you do, you can choose to make it as big or as small as you want, but because this one is such a passion project for our group, we are investing as much time, money and effort as we possibly can, into every area,” Grout said.

All the dialogue in “Les Mis” is sung and the actors have been working long hours with musical director E. Wayne Abercrombie to match their physical performances with their vocal ones. Abercrombie also will direct a 14-piece orchestra that will perform the musical score for the production. He said it is an unusual musical in that the music is continuous throughout; most productions have music that starts and stops, so the demands are quite high on the musicians as well.

A team of designers led by Hugh Hall also is creating an elaborate set of 19th-century Paris in a garage at the Amherst Department of Public Works and costume designers have been sewing costumes and gathering accessories for the show.

“It’s a very complete production that will exceed anything we have done in the past,” Pistrang said.

“We have put more blood, sweat and tears into this show than any other show that our organization has taken on,” Grout said. “We are making it a big production and we are not letting anything slide, from the set to the music to the orchestra. We are making sure everything is as best as we can possibly make it.”

Career pinnacle

Those exacting standards were on display at a recent rehearsal of key scenes from the show, as actors Ted Blaisdell, who plays Valjean, and Aaron Keyes, who plays the police officer, Javert, acted out a confrontation scene between the two men. Fantine has just died and Valjean has promised to take care of Cosette; at the same time, he is confronted by Javert, who has been on his trail. As the two men sing their lines, Grout interjects with directions, urging Blaisdell to show more anger and physical force. He also jumps in when the pair start wrestling to declare that Valjean was an enormous man who could not be easily overcome, directing Keyes to succumb more easily in the fight.

Blaisdell, a singer and actor from South Hadley, who is a member of the Valley Light Opera and has performed in past ALSCT productions, said the role of Valjean is the pinnacle of his career. He also is a middle school science teacher and drama club coach.

“It’s a dream role, one that tenors live their whole lives to do,” he said. Blaisdell said “Les Misérables” is a two-and-a-half-hour production that is a condensation of Hugo’s 800-page novel.

“After the rigor of the music, the acting is also very demanding,” he said. “It’s an awfully intense production. It’s not just tiring — you set the bar very high for yourself, emotionally, with this show. It’s one of the few things I have done where I feel completely honored to be a part of it.”

In another room, Abercrombie works with two young actors playing the roles of Eponine (Audrey Clark) and Marius (Jack Mulvaney), in a scene where Eponine has been shot and is dying in Marius’ arms. Abercrombie stops the two actors at various points to show how they can use their voices, as well as their bodies, to convey emotion.

“This is where the subtleties of singing come in,” he says. “You have to sing in a way that if someone in the audience cannot see your face, they can close their eyes and just hear you and tell exactly what you are feeling.”

At one point, as Clark sings her character’s last words in the song “A Little Fall of Rain,” Abercrombie interjects, telling her she sounds too “healthy” and must make her voice sound as if she is dying. She sings again: “I don’t feel any pain / A little fall of rain / Can hardly hurt me now / That’s all I need to know / And you will keep me safe / And you will keep me close.”

Then Abercrombie urges Mulvaney to let his own singing voice break, as he holds his faltering friend in his arms, singing “I will stay with you / Till you are sleeping / And rain / Will make the flowers ... grow.”

Grout says he thinks audiences will be thrilled with what they see on stage later this month.

“This is the best musical you could ever hope for,” he said. “It’s got everything: music, drama and the ability to reach for the stars.”

Grout is so taken with the musical that he recently named his baby daughter after the child in the show: Cosette.

“I myself have chosen to take the view of how becoming a father is a transforming experience,” he said. “A big part of the story is how [Valjean] is transformed by the innocence of this little girl.”

There is a general-admission show on Jan. 16 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for that show cost $12; $10 for ages 10 and under. All other dates are reserved seating: Tickets cost $20; $16 for students/seniors; $10 for ages 10 and under. To purchase tickets visit www.alsct.org, call LSSE at 259-3065 or visit the LSSE office, Bangs Community Center, 70 Boltwood Walk in Amherst.


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