With a stellar cast, an 11-piece orchestra, and in the capable hands of director David Bahgat and music director Brian Horne, the upcoming Gallery Players production of Les Miserables is quickly becoming one of the most anticipated performances of the 2014-2015 theater season in Columbus.
The musical will run March 14-March 29 at the JCC on College Avenue, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and original lyrics by Alain Boublil. Les Miserables, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, tells the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant, and his quest for redemption after serving 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread.
Inspired by a kind bishop’s act of mercy, he vows to start his life anew but is relentlessly tracked down by police inspector Javert. After some missteps along the way, Valjean, played by Tim Browning and joined by a talented cast of characters, finds himself caught up in the revolutionary period in France.
For Browning, who has a background in Shakespearean theater and now runs the theater program at Ft. Hayes Arts and Academic High School, the heart of the play lies in the disparity and despair of pre-Revolution France. “This is a play about how money makes people behave in different ways. The themes are so relevant today. It’s about how poverty can debase good people. The June rebellion is the same thing as Occupy Wall Street, but it’s Occupy Paris.”
If music is the universal language, then it only makes sense that Les Miserables, an operetta completely performed in song, would have a universal appeal. Using soaring and stirring orchestrations like, “Do You Hear the People Sing,” it provokes intense emotions with its themes of love, redemption, and fighting injustice. It’s only fitting that Gallery Players, the JCC’s long-running theater company known for thought-provoking, culturally diverse and relevant plays, would take on such an enormous and enormously popular project.
Victor Hugo once explained his novel’s ambitions to his publisher, “[…]It is meant for everyone. […]Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds […] do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: ‘open up, I am here for you’.” In much the same way, the JCC opens up its doors, and Gallery Players welcomes audiences of all backgrounds.
Melissa Muguruza’s first community theater experience was with Gallery Players. “I did a production of Annie in 1980-something. So the JCC always feels like coming home when I’m there,” she explained. Her background in musical theater from Otterbein University helps her bring nuance to the role of Fantine, the downtrodden mother of Cosette who resorts to prostitution to keep her daughter alive.
Muguruza noticed the parallels between the JCC’s broad appeal and the broad appeal of Les Miserables. “It shows what humanity can look like—that we’re not all the same but we have a lot of commonalities. No matter what age you are, wherever you are in your life, this show can speak to you.”
Elisha Beachy, last seen playing Perchik in Gallery Players’ Fiddler on the Roof in 2013, plays Marius, the revolutionary and love interest to Cosette and Eponine. He pointed out how the play is relatable on many levels. “This relates to any people group and any culture, really. We all know the story of falling in love with someone who’s not in love with you, and we know the story of injustice in our world. I think it’s just so powerful for any people group and any time,” he said
“The moving story resonates with many, sometimes for reasons they can’t even articulate,” director David Bahgat noted. With a background in musical theater from Otterbein University and a master’s from Savannah College of Art and Design, Bahgat has toured with the national production of Jesus Christ Superstar and most recently directed Bye, Bye Birdie with SRO Theater Company.
He explained why he thinks Les Miserables has enjoyed such longevity in the popular imagination: “Because the music, just the songs themselves… they evoke something in people, they make them feel something. When my mom first saw the show 25 years ago, she said, ‘I didn’t know what was happening the whole show, I just knew I was crying by the end. I don’t know why, I just felt so moved by the music.’”
After growing up with the musical, being moved to tears upon seeing it many times, and even performing in it, Bahgat hopes to move people with his take on the classic. “Now to direct it and put my own stamp on it but also pay respect to the original production, that’s such a cool thing to be able to do,” he said.
While the play runs over two hours with intermission, Bahgat will keep the scene transitions tight and seamless. “Keeping the tempo paced well is important for me as a director. It’s about making people feel like they just sat down and the next thing they know, the lights are coming back up for intermission. You can do that with lighting, moving set pieces, keeping everything flowing,” he said.
For him, the play’s success will be determined by whether his version stirs something in the audience. “As long as we tell the story and it affects people, that’s success. If you leave and you feel inspired or sad or are questioning how you feel,” he said. Just as he challenges his actors to explore their characters and always strive to find something new, Bahgat added, “We should be challenged as audience members, too.”
Browning, who recently directed New Players Theater and Gallery Players’ 2013 co-production of The Whipping Man, is enjoying the challenges posed by his director as he prepares for the role of Valjean. “David is incredibly wise beyond his years; he’s just a wonderful director. It’s such a fun role to create.”
Scott Green, who plays Javert, also feels fortunate to be in a play with such great energy. “That’s what I really love about live theater—you have an active audience. Their energy kind of feeds you a little bit. I think once the orchestra starts on opening night, that’s going to be a little nerve-wracking but really exciting for all of us.”
Green is enjoying his reunion with director Bahgat, who directed him in SRO’s Bye, Bye Birdie recently. Bahgat encourages experimentation, exploration, and collaboration with Browning as the two spar in their opposing roles as convict and police inspector. “Bahgat lets us bring what we feel we need to bring to the stage. Especially with myself and Tim who plays Valjean—he gives us an idea of what he wants to do, but then he lets us figure out and try different things. We have a good amount of freedom,” said Green.
As Fantine, Melissa Muguruza is excited about portraying the strong emotions her character goes through in a short time on stage. “It’s really emotionally charged. Everything is right there on the edge,” she said. Amy Silver Judd, as a member of the ensemble on stage for much of the musical, including many of the bigger musical numbers, certainly feels the emotion on the edge, too.
“There usually isn’t one night where I don’t get goose bumps when we’re singing ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ It’s very stirring. When you get on the stage, right before the curtain opens and the lights go down, there’s always that charge. It’s kind of electric, unlike any other feeling.” Judd is thrilled to return to Gallery Players after last appearing in Fiddler on the Roof in 2013, as the ghostly apparition of Fruma Sarah.
She is most excited by the amazing cast that includes her seven-year-old daughter, Sigal, as one of two young Cosettes, along with Violet Hicks. “Everyone is so talented. It’s such an amazing cast with a lot of community members, which is really something that we’re trying to increase at Gallery Players. I’m proud to be part of such a big community event. And I feel excited for my daughter and really proud of her. She’s being very brave.”
Director Bahgat agreed. “I just really enjoy working with the Jewish community. Because it’s a really tight-knit, close community and they really take care of each other. It’s very family-driven. It’s great because we have cast members like Rick Cohen who hasn’t done theater since 1982. There’s something magical about being able to give somebody that opportunity who hasn’t done it in so long.”
To order tickets to Les Miserables, visit www.jccgalleryplayers.org or call 614-231-2731.