This is big, really big.
More than 270 prospective actors knew it when traveling to Baton Rouge from throughout the state for auditions in April. And the cast of 31 knows it now.
Mention Les Miserables, and tickets have a way of selling out. Announce auditions for Louisiana’s first community theater production of the musical, and the result is the best of the best.
“We could have cast this show five or six times, and each one would have been a stellar cast,” Keith Dixon said.
Dixon is director of Theatre Baton Rouge’s production of the musical, which opens Friday, June 28, on the theater’s main stage. Opening night will be preceded by a pay-what-you-can performance on Thursday, June 27.
Dixon also is the theater’s managing artistic director.
“And he’s a genius,” Derrick Stevens said.
Stevens shares the bill with actor Jason Dowies in the role of Jean Valjean. The role of Javert also has been double-cast, with actors Chip Davis and Steven Fox playing the role.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Jean Valjean is prisoner 24601, who is released on parole and pursued by the obstinate policeman Javert. Javert believes once a criminal always a criminal, which makes it difficult to grasp Valjean’s transformation in Victor Hugo’s story.
The story was a classic novel long before it was adapted into a musical. Hugo’s story was first published in French in 1862.
The musical was first produced in 1980 in Paris, then moved to London’s West End in 1985 before making its Broadway premiere on March 12, 1987, in the Broadway Theatre.
And now it makes its community theater debut in Louisiana at Theatre Baton Rouge.
“This is a bucket list musical for me,” Terry Bowman said.
He’s the production’s musical director, and will take the prominent spot as conductor of the show’s 14-piece orchestra at each performance.
“I’ve seen it several times, but there are so many traveling productions of this still on the road that I thought the rights would never come open,” he continued.
But they did, and Theatre Baton Rouge was first in line to grab the rights, quickly learning, “If you stage it, they will come.”
“This isn’t the largest audition response for this theater,” Dixon said. “Years ago, the summer musical was the only musical the theater staged, so the auditions attracted nearly 400 people. But this is the largest response we’ve received in about 15 years, and people traveled from Slidell, Lake Charles and even Natchitoches to audition.”
Who would ever have thought there would be this much fuss over a guy who stole a loaf of bread?
That’s what landed Jean Valjean in prison. He stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister’s son. The act earned him a five-year prison sentence, which expanded to 19 when Valjean tried to escape.
He is paroled, but his sentence seems to continue outside prison walls when he is required to show a card stating that he is a convict.
Society shuns Valjean, but the Bishop of Digne gives him food and shelter. This is the turning point of Valjean’s life.
Valjean is arrested by Javert after stealing silver from the bishop. Instead of condemning Valjean, the bishop tells Javert that the silver was a gift. He adds two expensive silver candlesticks to Valjean’s stash, telling Valjean to use the silver to become an honest man.
Valjean is humbled by the bishop’s benevolence. He sets a different course for his life, changes his identity, and eventually becomes a factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.
It’s here where he meets a worker in his factory named Fantine, who must turn to prostitution after being fired by her lecherous supervisor. Fantine is sickly, and before she dies, Valjean promises to find and care for her illegitimate daughter, Cosette.
Cosette is a young child when Valjean discovers her slavishly working in the Thénardiers’ tavern. He offers money for Cosette and takes her to Paris to rear her as his own. Through it all, Javert is tracking him, adhering to his staunch belief that the law cannot in any case be broken.
“There are two stories here,” Fox said. “You have the story of Valjean’s transition and the story of Javert’s belief that no one can make that kind of transition.”
Fox’s Javert will sing opposite Dowies’ Valjean. And that’s not a passing statement. There are no spoken words in this production; every word is sung. This was the intention of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer when respectively writing the music and lyrics. Schonberg also joined Alain Boublil in writing the play’s book.
“Valjean is singing throughout the play, so it is taxing on the voice,” Stevens said.
Stevens is a Slidell native. He lived in Chicago for a while and performed musical theater in the Memorial Opera House in Valpraiso, Ind. He moved back to Louisiana in hope of landing stage and film work.
“And two weeks after I moved back, I auditioned for Les Miserables,” Stevens said. “I’ve worked with community theaters before, and I understand that they usually have to cast someone they trust.”
So, Stevens never expected to be chosen to play Valjean.
“I would have been happy being in the ensemble,” he said.
But Stevens made the callback, and then was notified that he would be one of the actors playing the part.
“And I have to say that I never expected the professionalism I’ve experienced at Theatre Baton Rouge,” Stevens said. “I’ve worked with other community theaters in the country, and there was a lot of disorganization. It was amazing to watch the organization of the auditions here. This company is more professional than even the professional companies I’ve worked with.”
Remember Stevens’ earlier reference to Dixon’s ingenuity? Well, he meant it.
“Keith can snap his fingers, and everyone is automatically in their places,” Stevens said. “And I have to say that I’m intimidated by the cast. I want to be able to live up to them.”
“Everyone in this cast could sing a lead part or has played a lead part in the past,” Dixon said. “They’re amazing. It’s one of the best casts that we’ve staged.”
Back to the story, it doesn’t end with Valjean’s escape to Paris with Cosette. There’s more — so much more. Almost three hours’ worth.
“But the orchestra rehearsed it straight through the other night, and the orchestra members said it didn’t seem like three hours to them,” Bowman said.
That’s how it is when the story is complete and compelling. This isn’t a surface story that can be told in a few lines. It’s detailed and thorough.
So, to learn what happens to Valjean and Cosette, you’ll have to make a trip to Theatre Baton Rouge. Will Valjean keep his promise to Fantine to care for Cosette? Will he continue his transition to become an honest man?
And can he do it before Javert catches up to him?
“This is such a beautiful story,” Dowies said. “Cosette is 16 in Paris, and my daughter is 14, which is close to Cosette’s age, so I have real-life experience that I can play off of as Valjean.” Meanwhile, for Davis, Les Miserables marks his return to the Theatre Baton Rouge stage.
“There aren’t many leads for bass-baritones, so I came to the auditions only with Javert in mind,” Davis said. “I wasn’t the original person cast to play him, but that person wasn’t able to stay in the play. So, I got the call on the night of my son’s graduation.”
And Davis knew upon accepting the part that this was going to be more than a summer musical.
It’s going to be big, really big.
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