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Thursday, June 20, 2013 10:26 am

Les Mis local

Bringing the international hit to the Springfield stage


Enjolras (Adam Sitton) encourages Parisians to join the revolution.

Joshua Ratz could have done anything on Father’s Day. He could have spent time with his 19-year-old stepson. He could have helped his pregnant wife care for their infant. He could have worked on a motion in his role as assistant attorney general. Instead, Ratz was doing what he’s been doing for the past 10 weeks – preparing to take the stage as Jean Valjean in the Springfield Muni Opera’s performance of Les Misérables.

Ratz isn’t alone. Other volunteers in the ensemble cast of 48, together with 16 chorus singers and a large technical crew, have rehearsed four weeks longer than average local productions. Sydney Assalley (Eponine) is a student at Glenwood High School. Rebecca Coakley (Ensemble) is a paramedic. Kevin Kulavic (ABC Gang) works for the state senate. They’ve toiled alongside attorneys, dentists, teachers and college students. Adam Sitton, who plays Enjolras, lives in Bloomington with his wife, Kates, who is due with the couple’s first son in July.

Rehearsals for Les Mis ran longer than average because Les Mis is no average show. After its debut in 1985, the musical adapted from Victor Hugo’s famous novel became an international hit and the longest running musical in theater history. Although it was previously unavailable to amateur community organizations, the Muni jumped at the chance to acquire the rights to Les Mis when they became available in late 2012. The amateur troupe has put together a nearly flawless live version that rivals any professional undertaking. When Ratz calls the Muni “the best unpaid theater the state of Illinois has to offer,” it’s hard to disagree.

Joshua Ratz as the protagonist, Jean Valjean.

After last Saturday’s rainout, a relatively small crowd returned for an 8:30 show on Father’s Day. Perhaps it was the holiday, the rainy forecast, or the competition from Game 5 of the NBA finals, but this cast deserves a sold-out house. Thanks to the Legacy Theater, the Hoogland Center for the Arts, the Springfield Theater Center, local high school programs and others who invest in local arts, Springfield has a deep talent pool capable of producing top-quality live local theater – and our community should be supporting it. The Muni’s Les Mis, director Stephan Kaplan says, “could have been cast four times over from the talented people who are in our production.” Several members of the chorus have previously worked as leading men and women.

From the very first line, it’s obvious this is one of the best – if not the best – productions Springfield is likely to see. The simple line, “The sun is strong, it’s hot as hell below,” is sung so beautifully and with such conviction that the audience understands immediately what kind of cast commands the stage. Mary Kate Smith’s version of I Dreamed a Dream, Ratz as Valjean singing Bring Him Home, Tony Young’s moving Stars, and Sitton and Kellen Fant leading the rebelling students on the barricade combine to form a powerful production. In fact, the cast from top to bottom is so strong that it seems unfair not to list them all. Kaplan says Les Mis is the largest show in Muni history and exceeds the standard budget by 50 percent. Thus, the opera board has added an extra weekend to both Les Mis and Rent (the final show of the summer season). The huge cast is joined by the Muni’s largest orchestra, robust sets that rarely repeat, complex lighting cues, pyrotechnics and songs in which more than 15 people sing. The workload requires more than 300 sound cues in the show that runs nearly three hours with a 15-minute intermission. Some characters wear as many as seven wigs and have almost a dozen costume changes that each must occur in less than 90 seconds. This all takes place steps away from a deep orchestra pit atop a 16-foot revolving stage that Kaplan and his colleagues have mastered beautifully.

Marius (Kellen Fant) and Eponine (Sydney Assalley) share a moment on stage.

The cast credits Kaplan with setting a tone of professionalism and respect from day one, but the director insists it’s the cast that provides the energy. “We had a record number of 400 people audition this year,” Kaplan says. “Many of them have dreamed of doing this show, so they come ready to work and take things seriously.” Fant echoes the sentiment. “I’m learning from everyone else in the cast,” he says. “I watch great actors and learn how I can improve as an actor and how I can improve within the show. We really push each other forward.” Gus Gordon, who plays the vile Thenardier, says he was motivated to learn his part as quickly as possible after he noticed that other actors had their entire roles memorized at the very first rehearsal.

While they certainly feel a bit of pressure to deliver a famous show that meets expectations, the actors each share their desire to interpret each role within its parameters. As Javert, Young (a guest vocalist for the Springfield Symphony Orchestra) hopes to connect with the audience and show them a more human side of the cold and stoic police inspector. “The audience needs to see his transition,” Young says. “We want to communicate the emotion behind what’s going on.” To do so, Kaplan added an effective moment between Javert and the recently killed Gavroche.

With Les Mis, the Muni is on the cutting edge. Although the show has been available for high school productions, the Springfield group is one of the first community theaters to tackle the daunting show. Saturday’s audience, eager throughout for every opportunity to applaud, rewarded the dedicated cast with an instant standing ovation before the last note ended. “I’m glad the Muni is doing Les Mis. We should always try to do new things,” says Gordon, who also serves as the Hoogland’s creative director. “You can’t do Sound of Music  every year.”

Zach Baliva is a media producer and filmmaker currently prepping a documentary on the student-loan debt crisis.

Aasne Vigesaa and Gus Gordon as the opportunistic Madame Thenardier and Thenardier.
Aasne Vigesaa and Gus Gordon as the opportunistic Madame Thenardier and Thenardier. PHOTO BY DONNA LOUNSBERRY

Upcoming at the Muni:

Les Miserables
June 19-23, 27-29 • 8:30 p.m.

July 12-14, 17-21 • 8:30 p.m.

Peter Pan
Aug. 2-4, 7,11 • 8:00 p.m.

Sept. 6-7, 12-14, 19-21 • 7:30 p.m.

For more info go to Themuni.org or call 217-793-MUNI.


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