Small town puts on big show

RUGBY When the full-length version of “Les Miserables” debuts on amateur stages in North America this month, one of those productions will be performed at the very heart of the continent.

Village Arts in Rugby, located in the geographical center of North America, will perform the Broadway version of “Les Miserables” Monday through Thursday at 8 p.m. in the high school auditorium. Tickets are available by calling 776-ARTS (2787).

Director Glory Monson said she jumped at the chance to stage the pop opera after waiting for years for the license to become available.

Monson, who has directed numerous Village Arts musicals, saw “Les Miserables” in London in 1989 and again about 10 years ago.

“I adored it. I was passionate about it,” she said. “I just wanted to do it so bad.”

It is not a production that is easy for a small-town community theater group to pull off, though.

“It’s probably the hardest show we have ever done,” Monson said. “This is a big learning curve, but it’s good for everybody. … It’s one of those musicals that is mostly for the people doing it, and if the people come and and love it, then it’s all the better.”

“Les Miserables” was first performed in London in 1985. Until late last year when Music Theater International made the performance license available for a limited time, amateur and professional groups outside of London and Broadway weren’t able to produce the musical. The only performances being licensed were the concert version and a school version for young actors.

Deb Jenkins, managing director with Village Arts, said the amateur licensing will give new exposure to “Les Miserables.” Previously, seeing a performance meant paying the high costs of travel and tickets to London, New York or one of the touring shows.

“That makes it impossible for some people. So it’s a great thing we can bring something like this to the local stage,” she said. “I would say it’s been really a decade we’ve been trying to figure out how we could do it.”

Jenkins said production catalogs started putting out blurbs about licensing coming soon for “Les Miserables” about six years ago. So every year, Village Arts called its agent and asked if this was the year. Accustomed to getting turned down, they were excited when the answer was different last fall.

The day licensing became available, Village Arts applied. Village Arts will be the first in North Dakota to produce the full-length musical version.

“We are among the first in the world,” Jenkins said. “You can’t produce this until the end of June. So we are producing it at just about the first possible moment.”

Monson was not concerned about finding the level of talent in Rugby that it takes to put on this type of production. It was more a matter of whether enough of those talented people would be available to participate in this year’s show. As it turned out, an impressive group of Bottineau vocalists was just as anxious to see “Les Miserables” performed on the amateur stage and agreed to add their voices to the cast.

There is some interesting casting. The actresses playing Cosette as an adult and child are mother and daughter. Some performers have been participating in productions for up to 30 years. Cast ages range from 8 to nearly 70.

About 75 people are involved in the production, including about 40 on-stage performers.

Craig Wollenburg, who is vocal director and plays the lead, Jean Valjean, said the musical differs from previous Village Arts productions in that, from a vocal perspective, it is more like an opera.

“Voices can get tired. Ranges are extended,” he said. Unlike a traditional musical that allows actors to cover for mistakes or forgotten lines, the story told entirely in song leaves no room for error if continuity is to be maintained, he said.

Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, “Les Miserables” is a tale about the survival of the human spirit. Set in post-revolutionary France, it is the story of a prisoner, Jean Valjean, who breaks parole to create a new life for himself while evading the ruthless Inspector Javert. The story introduces a cast of characters that include Fantine, a working class girl who turns to prostitution to support her child, Cosette. Valjean promises Fantine on her deathbed to take care of Cosette, who ends up in a love triangle. Meanwhile, political unrest envelops their countrymen.

Monson said the stage production is much different from the theater version that came out last December.

“That is the darkest movie ever. The musical just isn’t that way. It’s the same story, but it’s told in a much lighter fashion,” she said.

The show runs about 2-1/2 hours with a short intermission and isn’t recommended for children younger than 13 due to some of the content and scary scenes.

Although the musical is licensed in its original format, groups are restricted from copying the revolving sets or costumes of the original show.

“Les Miserables” has played in 42 countries to audiences totaling more than 60 million people, according to the official website. It has won more than 100 major theater awards, including an Olivier, Tony and Grammy.