It is an epic story of good and evil, of freedom and oppression, of desperation and hope, and of the ultimate redeeming power of love.
At Hood River Valley High School’s Bowe Theatre, it is all of that and more as a cast of 70 students from five schools — and several homeschoolers — perform the classic, “Les Misérables.”
The musical opened Friday and continues on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through Nov. 16.
The HRVHS production of the “school edition” of “Les Misérables” is the first one to be performed in Oregon or Washington, according to Director Mark Steighner. The school edition is about 20 minutes shorter than the original musical, which had its stage debut in London in 1985.
“Some of the verses were trimmed from a few songs and a little bit of redundant transitional material was cut,” Steighner said. “But all of the songs, characters and scenes are there. There was no editing for content.”
In other words, the young cast was given no breaks in pulling together one of the most challenging theatre productions of all time.
“Les Misérables” is the story of Jean Valjean (played by Chris Meyer) who, in the opening scene, is released from prison after serving five years for stealing a loaf of bread — and 14 more for attempting to escape. His jailer, Inspector Javert (played by Hans Severinsen), tells him he will always be marked as a thief by the yellow ticket he must carry with him for life.
When Valjean finds he can’t make an honest living because he’s been branded as a thief, he steals some silver from a kindly Bishop. When the police question him, Valjean lies and says the Bishop gave him the silver as a gift. To his surprise, the Bishop backs him up and gives him two silver candlesticks as well, asking only that Valjean use the gifts to become an honest man.
Overwhelmed by the Bishop’s kindness, Valjean tears up his yellow ticket and decides to begin a new life with a new identity.
The rest of the musical is set against the backdrop of revolutionary France in the early 1800s. Valjean — now known as M. Madeleine — a respected factory owner and mayor, tries to do right by his workers and townspeople. When he realizes that one of his former workers, Fantine (played by Sonja Decker), has turned to prostitution to support her illegitimate daughter only because Valjean inadvertently turned his back on her in a factory dispute, he promises the dying woman he will take care of her daughter.
But when Valjean learns that a man has been falsely accused of being him — the former prisoner on the lam — he confesses his identity to Javert in order to spare the man.
After Valjean reveals his true identity, he begs Javert to give him time to find Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (played as a young girl by Janet Avila and, later, as a grown woman by Liz Ghiz), and provide for her before going back to jail. Javert refuses, but Valjean overcomes him and escapes.
Valjean finds Cosette living with the corrupt tavern owner Thernardier (played by Daniel Armerding) and his wife (played on different nights by Sammy Schend, Lisa Page, Amanda Rickenbach, Lauren Emmerson and Melissa Pappas) and takes her under his wing as the country marches dangerously toward revolution — which has its own set of consequences for all the characters.
The three weeks of performances of this challenging production are the culmination of months of hard work by Steighner, the cast, stage crew and a 16-piece orchestra made up of volunteer community members. Steighner began rehearsals with many of the lead characters in June, followed by a week of “daily double” rehearsals with the entire cast in August (which meant 5-6 hours of rehearsals a day). After-school rehearsals have continued since September, and the orchestra has been rehearsing on Sunday nights for the past few months.
“The attendance rate at rehearsals has been almost 100 percent,” said Steighner, adding that several of the lead characters came to the first rehearsal with their entire part memorized.
As rehearsals progressed through the fall, Steighner said the cast discovered that rehearsing the individual pieces — nearly 30 musical numbers in all — was “relatively easy.”
“But tying all aspects of the production into a complete fabric was very difficult,” he said. “Trying to achieve the flow of story and music and keep young minds and voices focused for three hours at a stretch is really challenging. Learning to sing and ‘act the songs’ is tough.”
Another logistical challenge was the sound. While most productions at HRVHS use some microphones, Steighner had to buy 10 wireless body microphones for the lead characters in “Les Misérables.”
“Actors have to make very quick microphone swaps behind the scenes,” Steighner said. They also have to try to keep their voice levels relatively steady — a challenge when they are both singing and acting, often moving around the stage quickly.
Other challenges included the set design — especially construction of the “barricade,” which the student revolutionaries “build” to fight behind in their insurrection against the government.
“It was a huge challenge, especially given the limits of our theatre space,” Steighner said. One advantage of being the first school in the Northwest to take on the production was that many of the more than 250 costumes were made especially for the student actors by Helen’s Pacific Costumers in Portland.
“They are using our production as a pilot and they’ve already contracted to rent the show to two other schools (next spring),” Steighner said.
Part of pulling off such a complex production involved the actors learning about the history and diverse themes at the heart of Victor Hugo’s timeless novel, on which the musical is based.
“We’ve spent a lot of time as a cast discussing the many themes that pervade the book — the idea of good and evil, redemption, law and order, the plight of the poor, power and class — because the students need to understand that the story is still relevant,” Steighner said.
To bring home its relevance, Steighner helped arrange a cast trip in September to Dignity Village, a homeless camp in Portland. The students spent half a day there, performing musical numbers for the residents and touring the village. (The cast’s connection with the homeless didn’t end there; more than a dozen residents of Dignity Village came to opening night of “Les Misérables” with the help of Hood River resident and village advocate Joan Yasui Emerson. Please see page A1 for related story.)
The cast has also decided to donate proceeds from the Tuesday night shows to the Oregon Food Bank.
Despite — or perhaps because of — the enormous undertaking of producing “Les Mis” (it is “by far” the most expensive production ever done at HRVHS, according to Steighner), the show has taken on a life of its own.
“I was taken by surprise by the really special atmosphere that surrounds this show,” Steighner said. “It really inspires people to work and connect.”