by MICHAEL BOWEN and ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n Les Mis & eacute;rables, everybody dies. Well, almost everybody. And when actors are rehearsing one tragic demise after another, some of those deaths can start to seem mundane.
Just seven days before last Saturday's opening of Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre's biggest production of its 40 seasons, director Kirk Mouser and his cast of 35 are rehearsing a scene in which a gaggle of student rebels are shouldering their muskets and leading a rebellion.
A rehearsal room has become, just for pretend, Paris in 1832. Max Mendez, playing an army officer, is warning the students at the barricade that they "have no chance at all / Why throw your lives away?" Mendez sings in a rich, operatic voice -- he's the choral director here at North Idaho College, after all -- but right now he's sporting sunglasses perched atop a baseball cap.
Mouser, busily deploying his troops, reminds everyone that "this is life or death." Actors scramble over the battlements; emotions intensify.
The rehearsal pianist -- who's sight-reading a 400-page score -- launches into the anxious theme of "The Second Attack." Music director Steven Dahlke jokes, "This [passage] always sounds like Wild Kingdom."
[Spoiler alert! If you haven't seen Les Miz and are going to this production, jump past this section down to the "Taking the Challenge" heading.]
Next, the street urchin Gavroche -- played by 12-year-old Alex Goss-Goal, who goes to Post Falls Middle School and seems small for his age -- heroically gathers ammunition by crawling out into the no-man's-land in front of the barricade. "Snipers" fire at him, but they miss. Gavroche sings some more -- and then, just as he is about to reach safety, the snipers shoot him dead.
Some cast members, seated at the edge of the rehearsal space, glanced over at the boy's stage "death," then continued doing crossword puzzles and reading, coloring or going over their lines, snacking. But Gavroche's death is a difficult scene to watch, even in the rehearsal hall -- and some of the actors were witnessing this particular death scene for the first time.
"I don't know if I can make it through that," says ensemble member Abbey Crawford, wiping her eyes and looking for somebody to hug.
"Oh, get over it -- it's acting," scoffs Roger Welch in fake-mockery. Then he grins. Welch -- who's the artistic director here but who's also taking a turn in this show as the comic-relief scoundrel, Th & eacute;nardier -- knows how actors, in rehearsal, often need to switch emotions from concerned to callous and back again.
About that time, Dane Stokinger looked down from the battlements upon the somber scene. "It's always cool when kids die onstage," he said. Faces turned toward him, full of concern. "Or like, if you throw out a bucket of kittens."
Crawford might have been wiping away tears now, but when Gavroche's death was blocked, she'd gotten into a joking exchange with fellow actor Chris Thompson.
After Gavroche had fallen, Crawford glared at the boy and declared, "You are the weakest link."
"He's certainly the shortest link," Thompson replied.
Taking the Challenge
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hey may have their little jokes, but the CdA cast and crew realize what a huge opportunity -- and responsibility -- it is for their summer-stock theater to put on a juggernaut like Les Miz.
Welch had to lobby hard to bring it to North Idaho. It's been 27 years since the musical version of Les Mis & eacute;rables (lay-MEEZ-ay-ROB) premiered in Paris, 21 years since it first appeared on Broadway. During all that time, the complete Les Miz has only been produced by authorized, semi-permanent productions in major cities or in national or international tours. (There's a cut-down version for the schools.) Before a slimmed-down, three-hour version appears on Broadway, producers created a one-year window during which regional U.S. theaters could apply for the professional rights; Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre is one of only a dozen such theaters in the nation to produce the full three-hour, 20-minute version of Les Miz this season.
And Les Miz is one gnarly beast to produce.
Consulting a draft of the show's cue sheet, assistant stage manager Heidi Anderson lists some of what the beast requires. "There are eight projection cues [for surtitles], a scrim traveler [which slides in from the wings], a star drop -- that's a black drop [background] with lots of LEDs to make it look like stars, and that comes in twice," she says. "We have five big set pieces: the gate, a cart, a set of stairs that represents Paris, the two halves of the barricade, the bridge -- that's on a fly cue from above. And there's a million smaller things -- the bishop's house, docks, benches and drop divides so the techies won't be seen [when making scene changes]. We hate being seen."
The turntable, 24 feet in diameter and rented from Portland State University, runs on an electric-motor-and-bicycle-chain-setup; an operator will control its two speeds and reverse direction. "There will be probably 40 or 50 cues just for the turntable," says Anderson. (Without it, any production of Les Miz would get bogged down with the numerous scene changes.)
"I've been working here eight, nine years, and the shows get bigger and bigger, and the pieces get heavier and heavier," says Production Stage Manager Dawn Taylor Reinhardt. But she's not complaining, and she is getting some extra help for Les Miz: For a large musical, Coeur d'Alene normally uses four backstage dressers (to help actors off and on with their costumes); this show will use 10.
"Actors will often lunge off the turntable as it's revolving, and it's off with one costume piece and on with another," she says. For Th & eacute;nardier's inn alone, an intricate dance of six stagehands (two more than usual) and a dozen or more actors will carry on 22 set pieces -- "and that's not including props," Reinhart says. She applauds the work that goes into sliding some set pieces offstage at the same time that others are being maneuvered out of the scene shop and off the loading dock, along the side-stage walls and then positioned in the wings: "It's this big puzzle that they put together -- in the dark!"
Having learned about lighting design at Ferris and EWU, and having lit shows at Coeur d'Alene for four seasons now, Joel Williamson has grounds for saying that Les Miz is "our most complex show ever": 140 lights; six "intelligent" (moving, computer-operated) lights; 250 lighting cues; and two entire rehearsal days of "cue to cue," devoted to synchronizing dialogue and stage action to changes in lighting, music and turntable movement.
Williamson does his magic -- painting with light -- under logistical constraints (as always in theater). It'd be nice, he says, to have more circuits, more dimmers. Illuminating the main characters on a bustling stage isn't easy: In Les Miz, Williamson says, "Our biggest need is for isolation [with spotlights] and to keep [the lighting] tight on the actors. With the amount of movement in this show, our biggest challenge is how to make that work, how to keep the light tight while the whole deck is moving."
That "deck" is the responsibility of Michael McGiveney, who's been a lighting designer at Coeur d'Alene for 10 years and a set designer for eight. Les Miz is "tricky," he says, "because it needs to be very specific and yet at the same time, very abstract. We bring in real benches, a bar, a wedding scene -- you have to build all these things and yet place them all in a general environment.
"The London production I saw in the '80s -- it was all smoky and dark, but I don't remember much. Was it brickwork, or arches?"
The "general environment" needs to accommodate a couple dozen locations, McGiveney says, while also contributing to the characterizations: "These characters are victims of circumstance. They all live in a downtrodden way. They're walled in, stuck in these spaces, so it's very claustrophobic -- that's what I'm aiming for."
And as with all the CdA personnel, both backstage and onstage, there's a time crunch. McGiveney says, with a bit of a sigh, that he'll be spending the last two nights before the opening "doing a lot of painting."
HAVE CHOPS, WILL TRAVEL
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he backstage effort is matched by the onstage experience. The "hired guns" of the cast are two Equity actors who have played the leading roles in Les Miz before, both on Broadway and in national tours: Douglas Webster as Jean Valjean (unjustly imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread) and Geoffrey Blaisdell as Inspector Javert (who pursues Valjean relentlessly, obsessively). And Broadway experience is very much being brought to bear in this Coeur d'Alene production: Mouser, who's directing this show, played Marius (the young male lead) on Broadway and on tour. Not only does he know the show from the inside, as an actor, but he also learned the show directly from John Caird, who adapted and co-directed the original Broadway production. In addition, after taking over the role of Valjean on tour, Webster sat down with his predecessor for an entire day, going over every scene, every line.
Clearly, the tradition of Les Miz is being maintained in Coeur d'Alene. Especially in rehearsal.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & "M & lt;/span & ake those quarter-notes really, really long." It's eight days to opening night, and the "blocking" (arrangement of the actors onstage) for Act Two isn't yet complete, but musical director Steven Dahlke still gets 20 minutes at the start of rehearsal to smooth over any choral rough spots.
He provides guidance for a rollicking tavern song ("Master of the house, keeper of the zoo / Ready to relieve 'em of a sou or two"), then switches to the convicts' opening dirge ("Look down, look down / You're standing in your grave"). He listens to a passage with extended harmonizing, then says, "That sounds funny in the tenors" and makes some adjustments. Soon he's making admissions ("I'm finding this last pitch difficult") and demonstrating the descending phrase that he wants in the finale: "'Do you hear the people sing? / Singing a song of ...' -- that 'Singing' is just a hair higher," he urges.
An ensemble member is muttering to himself. "Oh, boy, this is where it gets hard," he says, to no one in particular.
The company joins voices again: "Do you hear the people sing? / Singing a song of angry men / It is the music of a people / Who will not be slaves again...."
The ensemble singer is smiling. "I did it, with other people," he says, and you can tell that he's proud of himself.
Dahlke is encouraging, too: "You have your fervor, and yet it also sounded beautiful." He claps his hands in a staccato beat ("Say, do you hear the distant drums?"), then holds his elbows up in exaggerated fashion, helping the singers change meters.
"OK," he announces, "Song Number 26 -- women only. Just skip bar 46...."
During a run-through of the second act, Darcy Wright sings a solo about unrequited love ("On My Own"), and her rendition is so good that the cast breaks into spontaneous applause.
Kendal Hartse -- who was raised in Spokane, been in CdA summer shows "since I was 16" and is in the ensemble for this show -- shares that "this is only the second time we've really worked the music." Which only makes this rehearsal all the more impressive: The face-front-and-deliver song of defiance was powerful, and the harmonizing on "The Night" (with Jadd Davis leading a quartet and then the entire company with "Drink with me ... to days ... gone by") was quite moving -- even just in a barren rehearsal room.
"That's a beautiful male sound," Dahlke says, and it would be smiles all around now -- if they didn't have another three hours of music to rehearse.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & ozens of people in a cramped space working intently for long hours on emotionally wrenching material: They're practically required to make jokes.
After extended gunfire, Mouser explains, "Valjean will step over here and kill the sniper with one shot." Oooh. The cast pretends to be impressed by the "marksmanship."
"Mark, you're the one who gets hit by sniper fire." Awww. Comforting hands touch Mark's shoulder.
"Matt, you're going to get shot in the right leg, and then you'll hobble over here." Matt Wade receives the requisite number of sympathetic looks.
Mark will need his head wrapped in a bandage; there's much discussion of how that will be accomplished, along with all the loading and reloading of fake 19th-century French muskets. By this point, there's some bored yawning.
But when Mouser starts directing a dozen of the rebels in how to die in slo-mo -- "It's like Deathography 101 right now," he jokes -- the emotional temperature rises. In the leading role of Valjean, Webster makes it appear that his character has killed off his nemesis Javert while concealing the fact that he actually hasn't. "Bad-ass," he mutters, self-approvingly.
The entire set is going to revolve -- but here in the rehearsal room, Mouser has to keep shouting reminders: "People, make sure you die on the turntable."
"Or you will be left behind," someone intones.
As Webster notes, "The actors here have to keep it light, so that when it comes time to create a tragic moment, they can do it."
From joshing around to tedium to intensity, there's a remarkable emotional transformation when the men's and women's choruses join in the drinking song's refrain ("Let the wine of friendship never run dry"). They've only done this twice, and still it's beautiful.
It's also draining. We're more than six hours into today's rehearsal, and most of these people will be back tonight for a performance of Once Upon a Mattress, CST's next-to-last production of the season.
They may talk about doing a "play," but it's also work.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ebster -- who knows his Les Miz, having traveled the world singing the part of Jean Valjean -- notes that "Roger has said that he feels this company is experiencing a real sea-change with this production."
The turntable, the director and actors with Broadway experience, the evident excitement within the company -- all of these mark the sea-change. But there's additional evidence, too: Webster's wife, Liz Byrd, is a cellist who played in a recent Portland production in which she was the only strings player. "Whenever I played, someone was about to die," says Byrd, joking. "I was like the theme from Jaws."
Byrd was amazed that Welch, a week before opening, was frantic because he couldn't find a bassoonist. "Usually the bassoonist is just doubling [other musicians' parts] anyway," she says. "Do you know how unusual that is, to have a full pit orchestra?" Byrd asks, incredulous. "That's unheard of."
But Welch, who has been with Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre for 22 summers, insisted on having a full orchestra -- 19 members in all -- and, yes, he got his bassoonist.
And he got more than that -- the chance to act again at CdA after four years' absence. With just days to go until the opening curtain, however, others, like stage manager Dawn Taylor Reinhardt, weren't so giddy -- more like panicked, actually. She was simultaneously dealing with the rigging of the harness for one of the play's crucial moments, the precise cues for the turntable operator, and the need to limit the overrun on rehearsal time for Les Miz so that most of the cast would have a proper break before that evening's performance of Once Upon a Mattress.
With twice as many costumes and twice as many lights as recent productions -- but the same two-week rehearsal period -- Reinhardt points out as she hurries past that doing Les Miz is "like doing two friggin' shows!"
-- MICHAEL BOWEN
The Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre production of Les Mis & eacute;rables runs through Aug. 23 at North Idaho College's Schuler Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $25-$35. Visit www.cdasummertheatre.org or call (800) 4-CDA-TIX.
Matt Wade is one of the fortunate few among actors: All through college (at Sam Houston State) and ever since, he's been steadily working. He has worked at dinner theaters, at Astroworld, and on a national tour of Oklahoma! (which involved, he says, "wearing big overalls and being hairy for seven months" while understudying Judd and playing Farmer No. 2). This summer in Coeur d'Alene, he has been the sidekick in All Shook Up and the gay couple's straight son in La Cage aux Folles. And while he may have been demoted to "Third Knight" in Once Upon a Mattress, he's back in full dramatic force in Les Miz as Marius (who's beloved of both Jean Valjean's adopted daughter Cosette and the neglected waif Eponine). As for his next role -- an actor's continual concern -- Wade has done his networking and thinks he has jobs lined up in upstate New York and in Arizona (for another production of La Cage).
In the meantime, Wade frequents karaoke bars ("I just wail on the high notes") and enjoys his out-of-a-suitcase lifestyle. "I like having a lot of friends," he says. He stays in touch by texting fellow cast members from past shows: "I hear all the time from people in La Cage." (MB)
Even her license plate holder reads, "I'd rather be doing Musical Theatre." Krystle Armstrong is just a geek for musicals: "Every summer, from the time I was 11 to when I was 18, I did a full production of a musical," she says. "That was great training."
She burst onto the Coeur d'Alene scene last summer with the title role in Thoroughly Modern Millie ("my dream role"), then played the tomboy in All Shook Up and the love interest in La Cage, then choreographed Once Upon a Mattress.
Armstrong has gone through a breakup because of life on the road -- as a result, "actors tend to date people within the business," she says -- and she's philosophical about her profession. "You have to deal with a lot of rejection," she says. "But you never know which audition will be The One. There's a lot of disappointment, but when they say yes, it's like, 'You want me?!' So it's a real roller coaster ride."
The day after our conversation, Armstrong had some rejection of her own to deal with. She'd been a finalist at a Seattle theater for the leading role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast. And she really wanted it. But they turned her down.
For now, at least, she has Cosette. And she'll always have musical theater. (MB)
COEUR d'ALENE, IDAHO -- PLAYING EPONINE IN LES MIZ
"I had such big dreams. I wanted to be on Broadway when I was 7," says Darcy Wright. Now -- after growing up in Coeur d'Alene and appearing in several seasons of summer stock here, then going off to UNLV for a theater degree -- she has made her move to the Big Apple. Wright has gotten herself "a couple of agents" and says she's "only going for New York jobs now." The reality there -- 6 am cattle calls for non-Equity actresses, working as a singing waitress -- hasn't fulfilled the promise yet. But as a singing waitress, Wright says, "I get to work on audition songs and learn a lot of pop and country songs, a lot of different styles."
Working all over the country can mean months-long separation from loved ones, but for now, Darcy Wright is chasing her dreams. (MB)
Dane Stokinger cops to the "gypsy actor" label: He has lived and acted all over the country. While he played the Elvis figure in All Shook Up this year, along with three other supporting or featured roles -- and the lead in last summer's The Full Monty -- Stokinger is the untutored boy wonder of the company: "I never went to college," he says. "I got a scholarship to go to a conservatory, but I was working summers in California and getting a lot of leads, and so I thought, 'Why should I go to school to learn how to do the work I'm already doing?'"
Stokinger, 27, spent two-and-a-half years on a national tour of Miss Saigon and also did a European tour of Jesus Christ Superstar: "We played a lot of stadiums. I was a priest and Apostles One through, like, Ten," he recalls, chuckling. "But the big leads, Jesus and Judas, were ridiculous -- just ridiculously talented. So I would really watch them -- you know, like, in moving from Point A to Point B, does he take three steps or 13? Does he stand and plant himself and own that space, or does he shuffle his feet?"
Dane Stokinger may "never have had a day of training," but he's studying his profession. (MB)
TO THE LIGHT
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's hard to be critical and objective about a play when you spend most of the second act sobbing into a tissue. But that's what happened to me Saturday night at the opening performance of Les Mis & eacute;rables.
You see, I'm a sucker for the sprawling story of poverty, rebellion, righteousness and redemption in 19th-century France, based on Victor Hugo's equally sprawling novel. I'm fascinated by Jean Valjean's conversion to a life of compassion and Javert's inability to allow gray to creep into his black-and-white world; by the students' devotion to an ideal and the Th & eacute;nardiers' amoral profiteering; by Eponine's unrequited love and Marius' survivor guilt after the ill-fated insurrection. Yes, I love the story and its rich social commentary -- as originally written by Hugo and as reflected in light of current events. I love the stirring music by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Sch & ouml;nberg, filled with recurring themes and symbolic parallels, in the all-sung musical that debuted on Broadway in 1987.
But that means I walk into any performance of Les Miz with some big expectations. This show is one of my favorites, so you better not screw it up.
Luckily, everything at Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre was virtually pitch-perfect on Saturday night -- the music, the voices, the action and all the technical bits that help tell the story. Along with the rest of the audience, I was swept up in the saga and carried along on a three-and-a-half-hour swelling tide of emotion.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & oiling down a 1,200-page novel for the stage is a challenge, even for a play that runs longer than three hours; and the action in Les Miz moves quickly, almost breathlessly, especially in the first act. First-timers may have a hard time keeping up with the details, so the best bet is to simply go with the broad themes and not get too picky about analyzing the underlying politics.
The play opens as convict Jean Valjean is paroled from a brutal prison chain gang after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. His status as an ex-con means he can't find a job or lodging, so he turns to petty thievery. When one of his victims, a clergyman, shows him mercy and compassion, however, Valjean vows to become a good and honest man. Dogged by his past, though, he must change his identity -- and thus break the rules of his parole -- to do that.
Valjean becomes a successful business owner and lives up to his vow of compassion, but he's pursued across the country and across the years by Javert, a rigid upholder and enforcer of the law. Along the way, Valjean aids Fantine, another innocent who has fallen into the wretched masses, and adopts her daughter, Cosette. A decade later, Valjean and Cosette are caught up in the 1832 student rebellion in Paris. There's a love triangle, some comic relief, and a tragic, epic battle -- but through it all, Javert continues to hunt down Valjean.
The conflict and contrast between Valjean and Javert -- compassion versus righteousness, justice versus law -- is what propels the drama forward. As a result, these two characters are the keys to a successful production. For this run, CST brought in -- along with director Kirk Mouser -- two performers with Broadway and national touring company experience, Douglas Webster (Valjean) and Geoffrey Blaisdell (Javert), to play these two key roles. Both are dynamic vocal performers with range and power to spare.
Valjean may be the hero of the show, but a dynamic Javert is absolutely critical: The audience must understand what drives him in his quest to capture Valjean. After all, Javert is not evil -- merely misguided by blind devotion to the law. Blaisdell's Javert is tall and lean and compelling in his certainty, and he received one of the most enthusiastic cheers of the evening after his solo turn in his anthem-of-purpose, "Stars."
The danger with Valjean's character is that he can veer toward seeming too good, too noble to feel true. Webster's Valjean is strong, solid and steady, as he needs to be -- but he never stops being deeply human.
While the "hired guns" shine as they should, there are plenty of strong performances among the rest of the CST cast. Of special note is Lake City native Darcy Wright as Eponine. (Eponine is in love with Marius, who only has eyes for Cosette.) She was clear and strong singing "On My Own," her character's heart-rending acknowledgement of her place in this love triangle. Krista Kubicek as Fantine and Matthew Wade as Marius sang marvelously as well; Wade nailed the powerful post-battle "Empty Chairs," a grief-stricken reflection on survivor guilt amid the futility of war. ("My friends, my friends, don't ask me / what your sacrifice was for...")
Kudos go as well to Roger Welch and Leslie Rhodes as Monsieur and Madame Th & eacute;nardier, who begin as comic relief and become far darker and menacing as the amoral gleaners who know how to profit from conflict and chaos.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & pecial compliments should go to the cast as a whole for the strength of the ensemble singing, led by musical director Steven Dahlke. Lyrics are important in this show, and they often come at a rapid-fire pace, but most every word was clear and understandable in pieces like "At the End of the Day" and "One Day More," the monumental first-act closer.
And Michael McGiveney's dark and smoky sets capture the harsh conditions of a society that's entering the early stages of industrialism. The title translates variously as "the miserable ones" or "the wretched," and the masses of downtrodden poor form the backdrop against which the story unfolds. And yet, despite the title, despite the tragedy of battle and the peasants' assertion that "nothing changes, nothing ever will," the story is ultimately redemptive and optimistic, both on an individual level and for humanity as a whole. Ultimately, the chorus reminds us, the wretched of the earth -- all of us -- are the people who are climbing to the light.