NORWICH – Usually when it comes to high school musicals, one thinks of the lighter, classic fare – something set in, say, Oklahoma. Or the Swiss Alps. The troupe at Norwich High School, however, like to stretch their acting (and singing) chops a bit more.
That’s why this weekend they’re headed to France, staging Les Misérables – School Edition.
Les Misérables was composed in 1980 by the French composer Claude-Michel Schönberg. It’s one of the most well-known and performed musicals worldwide – the Broadway production ran 16 plus years and over 7,000 performances before closing. It is the second longest running musical in Broadway history, behind “Cats.”
“A couple of years ago we took a group of students to see Les Mis on Broadway. I became enthralled with the score and story and decided then that when I had the right students to cast it, I would,” said longtime NHS musical director Mark Sands. Apparently, that time has come. The Tornado stage will boast performances of the Tony Award-winning show Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30.
Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name, Les Misérables is set in early 19th-century France, following the intertwining lives of a cast of characters as they struggle for redemption and revolution.
Heading Sands’ cast is senior Robert Harris as beleaguered protagonist Jean Valjean, who served 19 years’ hard labor for stealing bread for his starving family – and later trying to escape. Released from prison, Valjean soon finds himself in trouble again, and again. “Valjean decides he can lead a better life, become a better man,” Harris said, adding that the musical “follows Valjean’s ascent into glory.”
For Harris and the rest of the cast, Les Misérables presents a unique challenge when compared to other high school musicals – there’s hardly any spoken dialogue, the play is largely sung. Although shy of calling it an opera, Harris admits the Norwich troupe is “definitely raising the bar on this one in every aspect. It’s a powerhouse show, but it’s very difficult.”
Valjean’s life is made difficult by the dogged pursuit of Inspector Javert, the policeman who makes it his life’s goal to bring the fugitive back to justice. “He’s either the most complex character or the simplest, depending on how you look at it,” said his portrayer, senior Chris Kappel. “Javert has a very singular mindset about the carrying out of the law. The conflict between him and Valjean comes down to a strict adherence to the law; it becomes an obsession for Javert,” he said.
“There are no easy roles in this,” Kappel said of Les Misérables. “It’s essentially an opera, so I’ve really been challenged to grow as a singer,” he said. Why take on such a challenging role? “When I step out for the curtain call, that’s when I know why I keep doing this,” he said. “That feeling of unity and accomplishment is what keeps you coming back for more.”
In deciding to undertake this ambitious production, Sands said, “I needed a support team who would be willing to put in the required time to make this production come to life.” That support came in the form of longtime collaborator and NHS colleague Mary Mayo directing the vocals, and also adding two additional vocal coaches for the students this year – Jamie Carrier and Meena Conant. They’ve been working with the kids in rehearsals since January.
“Mrs. Mayo has been a huge influence on me,” said junior Shannon Richards, who plays the put-upon Eponine. “She’s a caring, loving, fantastic director. Her aura affects everyone around her.”
Sophomore Dillan Smith is another of Mayo’s admirers, studying with her and the others to prepare for his role as Enjolras, upstart student and revolutionary. “I’ve been doing shows since seventh grade,” Smith said, “but this one really challenges you in terms of its vocal range. It’s been great to work with all these talented people.”
Although the constant singing and tremendous score of Les Mis has most cast members sweating, sophomore Breanna Guiffre, who portrays Fantine, is more worried about the emotions. “It really hits me emotionally,” she said of her character, who’s forced into a life of prostitution to save her illegitimate daughter. “I’ve actually broken down on stage a couple of times,” she said. But, she adds, the lyrical quality of the show enhances the emotional. “It moves you in a way that simply speaking the lines wouldn’t,” Guiffre said. “It really strikes you on a whole different level.”
Being cast in a leading role for the first time can also be pretty stressful. Just ask junior Ethan Steers, who plays the idealist Marius. Steers studied with a vocal coach in Binghamton as well as the Norwich crew to get ready for his role, which includes the powerful solo “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” Despite all the challenges, and the oft-depressing storyline, Steers insists that Les Mis “is a very relatable show. Everyone’s been through these things – life, death, love. I can promise that anyone coming to see the show this weekend will come away completely moved.”
Paired with Marius is his love interest and Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette, played by junior Courtney Becker. She credits Sands with keeping everything together. “He’s a tough director, but he has to be,” she said of her Norwich mentor. “I hope that audiences this weekend come away with a sense of how difficult this was to put together, and how much talent we have right here.”
Lest you think Les Misérables is, well, miserable, rest assured there are plenty of lighter moments as well – mostly provided by the Thenardiers, the greedy innkeepers who treat poor Cosette like a slave. Playing the comedic (and dastardly) duo are seniors Erin McMahon and Matt Robinson. “We’re really the only comic relief,” Robinson said of his seedy character. “Our chemistry is great,” McMahon said of her partner in crime. “We’ve made up a lot of our own routines.” McMahon, a longtime fan of Les Mis, is grateful for the chance to perform it as her last NHS stage production. “It’s an inspirational, powerful show,” she said, with Robinson chiming in, “It will literally take your breath away.”
Also assisting in the production are lighting designer Matt Grenier, costumer Norma DeGraw and sound engineer Steve Samsonik.
“The end result is more than words can really describe,” Sands said, reminding audiences they’ll hear favorite songs such as “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Master of the House,” “The People’s Song,” and “On My Own.” “This show is easily a two standing ovation production, intermission and at the end. Don’t miss out on one of the greatest stories ever told,” he said.
Les Misérables – School Edition is set to be performed in the NHS Auditorium on Friday and Saturday, April 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. with a Sunday, April 11 matinee at 2:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $5 and are now on sale at both The First Edition Book Store and Service Pharmacy in Norwich. Tickets will also be available at the door before each performance.
For information, contact 334-1600 ext. 1343.