Sweeping drama of 'Les Misérables' puts grand note on foothill theater’s 35th anniversary

02/27/2014 12:00 AM

02/27/2014 12:57 PM

If you’re going to go big, go “Les Misérables.”

The sweeping musical, based on Victor Hugo’s historical classic, will open Sierra Repertory Theatre’s 35th season in grand fashion. The beloved production set against the tumultuous backdrop of revolutionary France has become a global sensation since debuting on Broadway in 1987 and gone from stage to big screen and back.

Probably few productions of the show have packed the big-things-in-little-packages promise of the Sierra Rep adaptation, though. A cast of 32 will perform the epic show in the company’s 200-seat East Sonora Theater.

“We think that our production of ‘Les Miz’ will offer people a chance to see it unlike they’ve ever seen it before. Our theater is so intimate. The power of this piece artistically, this score and these singers, in that small a space, is going to fill up that theater,” said Sierra Rep co-founder and producing director Dennis Jones. “I have been directing for almost 50 years. I have directed closing in on 150 different productions, but I’ve never seen a show this big and this complex in my life. It is so big, so huge.”

The story stretches over three decades as it follows French peasant Jean Valjean, who is sent to jail for stealing a loaf of bread, only to be released 19 years later in search of redemption. The original Broadway production ran from 1987 to 2003 and took home nine Tony Awards. It had a two-year revival in 2006 and is set to return to the Great White Way this March.

The Sierra Rep production boasts a cast of returning performers and newcomers to the company. Bay Area-based actor Cliff McCormick will make his Sierra Rep debut as Jean Valjean. Some of his previous work includes playing Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde in “Jekyll & Hyde.”

His foil will be Eric Jon Mahlum as Javert, the inspector doggedly on Valjean’s heels. Mahlum has appeared in the Broadway production of “Wicked” and had featured roles in national tours and regional theater productions across the country.

Chicago-based actress Sierra Naomi also makes her company debut as Fantine, a young, unwed mother forced into prostitution by the birth of her daughter, Cosette. Baton Rouge native and Sierra Rep newcomer Lori Lusted, now based in New York, in turn plays a teenage Cosette. Others in the cast include Chris Vettel, as the innkeeper Thernardier, and Scott Sowinski, as the revolutionary Enjolras.

The large production required the company to use a trailer as overflow space to accommodate the actors and many elaborate new costumes. The set pieces and outfits, created by Ryan J. Moller (whose next job will be at the Metropolitan Opera in New York), are all new for the show. Jones said the production was a gift to the community for supporting the arts all these years. On its 25th anniversary, the company staged another wildly popular musical, “Cats.”

“We want to give them something on a special anniversary that is bigger than usual,” he said. “Also, for us as artists, this helps us keep going. There is nothing more challenging than a show like this.”

Many in the cast relish the challenge of taking on the epic production. McCormick, who has seen the production on Broadway, in London’s West End and in San Francisco, said bringing it to life himself is special.

“The first thing I want to do is I want to tell the truth. If art is this ‘what it is to be human’ question, this is such a human story and confluence of lives,” McCormick said. “It’s very high drama. One of the great things that has helped me find the character is Dennis Jones’ approach. He has said the overall goal of this (production) is going to be for the art. So then how can we best tell this story?”

Lusted, who portrays Cosette as a young woman who has been adopted by Valjean, said she wanted to make her character as three-dimensional as possible. She said the Sonora theater’s setting almost makes the audience feel like it’s in on a secret.

“It’s like maybe we shouldn’t even watch (the characters) be so honest,” she said. “To be that close and watch human emotion without that distance is very powerful. Usually when people see this production, it is from far, far away. Even an orchestra seat in Broadway is farther away than this. But here, it’s so big and right there.”

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