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Tuesday, September 30, 2014, 5:09 p.m.
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THEATER

Rep welcomes epic Les Miserables

By JACK W. HILL SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published March 6, 2014 at 2:40 a.m.

Gavroche (Matthew Hugg, left), and Enjolras (Caleb Reese) prepare for revolution in Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of Les Miserables.

Never one to duck a challenge, Arkansas Repertory Theatre Producing Artistic Director Robert Hupp has chosen to re-create Les Miserables, the musical that not only was the Rep’s most popular production in its 38-year history, but is also the world’s longest-running musical.

It’s a play that has been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and, when a film version came out in 2012, Anne Hathaway won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

The noted musical (music by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg and based on Victor Hugo’s novel) is set in 19th-century France.The play, presented by the Rep in its 2008-09 season, features a new set design and is again a co-production with Arizona’s Phoenix Theatre. Set design is by Mike Nichols, the Rep’s resident set designer/technical director.

“The rights to Les Miz to regional theaters only come about occasionally, like the release of a Disney movie,” says Hupp, director of the production. “This is the first time the rights have been available since ’08 … and who knows when the rights will be available again, since its opening on Broadway.

“[In 2012] the movie was released at Christmastime, and in many ways I thought [it] was very spectacular, but in many ways the movie brought home the idea that the play was created for the stage, and for performers who have the vocal power to bring the emotion of the story to life. I was very eager to assemble a cast that could bring this story to life.”

The cast of 31 includes 21 local cast members, plus the return of two of the Rep’s 2008-09 actors: Douglas Webster in the role of Jean Valjean and Christopher Carl as Inspector Javert - the two characters who spend a lifetime as prey and pursuer, respectively. Valjean, who served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, is paroled but violates the conditions, which causes Javert to relentlessly pursue Valjean, who has vowed to raise Cosette, an orphaned girl. Meanwhile, revolution is in the air.

Webster, whose first recording job was singing as Prince Charming on the Grammy-nominated A Disney Spectacular with the Cincinnati Pops for Telarc Records, is considered the foremost interpreter of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass and won Best Actor awards for his portrayal of Valjean in Phoenix and Portland, Ore.

“I was in the national tour 25 years ago,” Webster says, “and the Broadway company 21 years ago. I walked away from it for about 10 years, and then Bob called me. Then he called again last year - just enough time for me to drop 40 pounds. I was fat and happy and my knees would not have been successful, so I trained up for it.

“One of the cast members said to me, ‘You guys laugh a lot; I’ve never seen a Valjean laugh so much,’ and I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to laugh when there’s this much tragedy. You’ve got to have a balance.’”

Carl was seen most recently at the Rep as Capt. Smollet last season in the world premiere production of Treasure Island.

“I also have been Javert in Phoenix and upstate New York,” Carl says. “Each time I am Javert, he becomes a little more cruel every time! It’s like a fresh new box of toys and there’s nothing stale about it.”

Others in the cast are Christopher Behmke as Marius, Karenssa LeGear as Cosette, Mary Little as Eponine, Danielle Erin Rhodes as Fantine, Michael Sample as Thenardier, Terey Summers as Madame Thenardier, Sydni Whitfield as Young Cosette and Matthew Hugg as Gavroche.

Hugg has performed for two years with the Rep’s Young Artists Programs; Whitfield recently played Sweetie Pie in the Rep’s holiday 2013 production Because of Winn Dixie; and Rhodes played Gladys in Pal Joey earlier this season at the Rep. Summers was part of the 2008-09 cast at the Phoenix Theatre.

“My character is kind of ugly as a human being, and she has an evil side, but I really like her,” Summers says. “I think the reason I like her is the humanity of her.”

There will be a panel discussion at noon today in Sturgis Hall at the Clinton School of Public Service, with Hupp and other panelists, including members of the Rep’s creative team, in a conversation about how film productions and stage productions differ while attempting to tell the same story. See therep.org or clintonschool.uasys.edu for more information. Call (501) 683-5239 to reserve seating.

Hupp emphasizes that many theater-lovers in central Arkansas have seen Les Miz, but perhaps have not had the opportunity to see the show “in an intimate setting, up close and personal … you have an amazingly talented cast, creating a story with very epic, romantic music, bringing it to life in our intimate setting, in a one-of-a-kind experience.

“That’s why we wanted to tell this story again, and … I feel confident that this production will be even stronger than the one we did in 2008-09. It’s the kind of a musical you can come back to again and again, because there are so many new things to find. It’s like opening up a treasure box and finding a new gem that you hadn’t seen before. That’s why Les Miz has endured and become one of the most popular musicals in the world over the last 30 years, because of its romantic, epic sweep.”

Les Miserables 7 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; through April 6, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Sixth and Main streets, Little Rock (Preview performance at 7 p.m. today with preshow director’s talk from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m.)Tickets: $45-$60 ($5 off advance purchases through today) Sign-interpreted performance for the hearing impaired: Wednesday (March 12 only) (501) 378-0405 therep.org/attend

Weekend, Pages 35 on 03/06/2014

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