The arrival of Les Miserables at the Omaha Community Playhouse is surely the most anticipated production since the theater’s opening in 1959. If you wonder how eagerly it’s awaited, consider these facts:
• When Charles Jones incorrectly believed he’d won rights to the musical 20 years ago, rumors spread quickly and the Playhouse set a record for season ticket sales.
• Auditions this summer drew more than 350 hopefuls, the greatest turnout in the theater’s nearly 90-year history.
• In addition to Timothy Shew, who played Jean Valjean on Broadway, and other lead actors rich in musical starring roles, the ensemble and one-scene roles are studded with talents — Debbie Cline, Jennifer Gilg, Ryan Pivonka, Mark Thornburg and Jodi Vaccaro, for example — who’ve played lead roles in such musicals as Fiddler on the Roof, Sound of Music, Evita and so on.
• Starting Friday, Les Miserables is scheduled to run 28 rather than the usual 23 performances, winding up on Oct. 27. The cast rehearsed 10 weeks rather than the usual seven, and their time was spent entirely on stage, not the usual weeks in rehearsal hall.
• Group sales, with adults paying $29 rather than the usual $40, sold more than double the original allotment within days of public sale in August. No discounted tickets remain, and the best choice of seats is now available for the final two weeks in October. That $40 price compares to $110 for the best seats during the most recent run of Les Miz at the Orpheum.
And so it goes, from the challenge of designer Georgiann Regan and crew creating 400 costumes to music director Jim Boggess taking three weeks rather than the usual few days to teach the legendary music for the nearly dialogue-free two-and-a-half-hour show. He’ll concentrate on the conductor’s baton, as he did earlier for the award-winning Ragtime, as he leads 11 musicians.
Yet all the exceptional aspects of the most expensive six-figure production in Playhouse history are overshadowed by the artistic qualities that make this the most internationally-embraced musical of all time. If you’re among the Omahans who bought tickets each of the four times it played the Orpheum, you might have shared my experience of sitting next to a couple who purchased seats for each and every night of the week-long run.
The enthusiasm of such extreme fans must add pressure on director Susie Baer Collins, but she explains, “You can’t think too much about how much is riding on the success of this show–you just fix what you can fix each day and try to make informed decisions.”
Asked two week prior to opening about her biggest challenge so far, she said, “Getting people to understand that they should be getting their tickets now and not wait until we open.”
Collins is aided by Carl Beck, who was earlier announced as co-director. The two directors had decided well in advance of this final season before their joint retirement that they would support each other on the two book-end musicals, this one and Young Frankenstein. Susie now serves as primary director with Carl taking the lead on the closer.
“With two people in charge, it is way too easy for something to fall between the cracks, so we have kept the solo director concept,” she notes. “However, Carl has his hand in all aspects of the show, he has staged portions of the show and he is an adept set of eyes that is so welcome in a show of this magnitude.”
That magnitude may be measured in so many ways, starting with the auditions that drew top talents willing to accept lesser roles. You may have read Bob Fischbach’s compelling account in the World-Herald of Mark Thornburg, an award-winning player in such roles as Fiddler’s Tevye, competing for the big role of Inspector Javert, then settling for the ensemble and the small role of the Bishop.
But, if you know Victor Hugo’s story, you’ll understand what a weighty role it is. The Bishop forgives Valjean’s theft and turns the ex-convict’s life around singing, “Remember this, my brother/See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver/To become an honest man.”
For those millions of us worldwide who find Les Miserables the most powerful theatrical experience of the entire 20th century, such moments are deeply moving and ample support for the old saying that there are no small roles, only small actors. This cast is full of such large actors as Thornburg.
Make no mistake, however, the largest roles are filled with cast members whose credits speak volumes about their stage accomplishments.
Shew, the guest artist, has not only played Valjean in more than 1,600 performances, but he’s also starred on Broadway alongside Nathan Lane, Betty Buckley and other big names. Joseph Dignoti, a former Equity pro who landed the key role of Javert, has proven his strong voice and stage presence at the Playhouse in both musical and comedy roles.
Julie Crowell as Fantine, who sings “I Dream a Dream,” has sung leads in Camelot, Carousel and My Fair Lady, while Jennifer Tritz as Cosette was recently honored for her role in The Fantasticks. She’s paired with Joseph T. O’Connor II as Marius in the romantic leads.
As any Les Miz fan will tell you, a fair share of anticipation focuses on the Master of the House, inkeeper Thenardier and his bawdy wife. Well, with lanky veteran Cork Ramer and the operatic Megan McGuire in those key roles, it’s safe to predict they’ll be a huge improvement over the movie version’s Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter.
Which brings up a closing point: While the recent film was deservedly well-received, it’s also safe to predict that the live Playhouse treatment will easily outshine it in vocal and musical terms.
If you can’t wait for opening night, catch the 30-minute behind-the-scenes look at the musical at 6:30 p.m. Thursday on WOWTNBCOmaha.