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Bay City Players Explore the Lyrical Passion & Spectacle of Les Misérables

Posted In:Arts & Entertainment, Theatre | From Issue 780 | By: | 14th November, 2013 | 0

Bay City Players Explore the Lyrical Passion & Spectacle of Les Misérables
Bay City Players Explore the Lyrical Passion & Spectacle of Les Misérables
Bay City Players Explore the Lyrical Passion & Spectacle of Les Misérables

Les Misérables is one of the more spectacular, engaging, and dramatic musicals populating the lexicon of contemporary theatre.  Originating as a French historical novel by Victor Hugo that was first published in 1862, it is considered one of the greatest novels on the 19th century because of the manner in which it examines the nature of law & grace, the moral and philosophical dynamics behind politics, justice, and religion; all tied together with an explication of the types & nature of romantic and familial love.

As a musical, Les Mis (as it is colloquially known) is a sung-through almost operatic musical, with the entire script set to song and rendered in a manner similar to Sunset Boulevard and Evita. It tells the story of Jean Valjean, a burly French peasant of abnormal strength and potentially violent nature, and his quest for redemption after serving 19 years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread for his starving sister’s child. Valjean decides to break his parole and start his life anew after a kindly bishop inspires him; but he is relentlessly tracked down by a police inspector named Javert. Along the way, Valjean and a slew of characters are swept into a revolutionary period in France, where a group of young idealists make their last stand at a street barricade.

An intricate and expansive musical, Les Misérables is currently busily being rendered for production and undergoing intense rehearsals by the Bay City Players under the direction of Michael Wisniewski for a series of performances on December 5-8 and December 12-15thWith a cast of 38 actors and an 18-piece orchestra under the direction of Sara Taylor and choreography by Holly Haga Bills, Les Mis is undoubtedly one of the more ambitious productions that Bay City Players have adopted for production.

As for Wisniewski, the way he is approaching the intricate nuances of this masterwork is to “keep the story and music first and foremost in  the production.  I saw Les Mis years ago in New York City and was blown away, but felt it kept losing the powerful impact of the story because of everything going on. To remedy that we’ve created this large structure that various scenes take place upon, along with the front of the stage floor, so you don’t lose any of the story because of the magnificent spectacle that’s going on around you. This is really a very simple story with wonderful music that sometimes gets lost when you’ve got big massive pieces that you’re moving around the stage. We don’t want anything cutting into the flow of the action, so what I’m doing is almost seamless.  Instead of stage hands cast members will bring on various tables and stools to set the scene, which also keeps it down to a good time frame.”

“One production I saw was 90 minutes alone for the first act alone,” continues Wisniewski, “so we’re doing the 2011 version, which does not have a lot of scene changes and my goal is to get the first act down to one hour and keep the story and music front and forward. Plus another tool we are utilizing is the use of lighting to create different settings. For example, when going to the garden for one of the numbers, one part of the stage will turn into a garden through the use of lighting effects. So we are utilizing methods like that to achieve our goals and keep things focused.”

When asked what he feels distinguishes Les Mis from other popular musicals, Michael points to the fact that is was written without dialogue. “Because the entire story is sung and rendered through these marvelous songs throughout the play, as opposed to most musicals that will have a song and then dialogue; and then another song, the fact that music is what carries the scene from to start to finish in Les Mis is what makes it remarkable. I think that the way it is written is so unique that this alone distinguishes it.”

Interest in Les Mis was substantial from the get-go, with 140 people showing up for auditions. “We had a huge turnout for auditions,” notes Wisniewski, “and probably could have cast the show three times over with the talent that came out. With Dan Taylor playing the lead role of Jean Valjean, Dale Bills as Javert, Jennifer Kennedy performing the role of Fantine, and Laurel Hammis filling the role of Little Cosette, Michael is excited about each member of the cast and what they bring to the production.

“Dan Taylor is from Saginaw and this is the first time he’s been involved with the Players; and Dale Bills has many years of experience on the stage. Jennifer Kennedy has also been long involved in theatre, and our choreographer Holly and Dale are married, so their daughter Jennifer is playing Fantine. Another actress, Kalie Schnabel, who plays Cosette in our production played the role of Little Cosette when she was at Garber years ago, so because there are so many feature roles in this cast the ensemble is very busy, especially in the first act.”

Michael says he approached this production by working out the story and script in blocks. “When we started rehearsals we were at Bay Valley Dance Academy in the dance room without a set and couldn’t tape out the floor, so we had to imagine the staging, which took a lot of creative thinking to roughly block it out. Sarah had the music rehearsals at Westminister Presbyterian Church, so we took chunks of the play and worked on it until we got into the building at Bay City Players and could make adjustments. Basically, we worked it scene-by-scene and then when you finally do bring it to the stage, all of a sudden things change. You have elevations and more space and a set to work with. Because we have such a good-sized orchestra, Sarah has been just as busy as the cast. It’s a large orchestra with a lot of sound coming out and beautiful music to work with.”

With Les Mis serving as Michael’s fourth play that he has directed at Bay City Players, he also finds it the most challenging. “When I was directing Gypsy I knew that I would also be directing Les Mis, but would keep it to the back of my brain because it would seep through and I would have these crazy dreams. All the newsboys in Gypsy were in rags and tatters singing Extra Extra and in another dream Fantine was singing Everything Coming Up Roses,” laughs Michael. “But first I read through Les Mis and got mental images of what I wanted and who I needed; then I started looking at who would handle props and costumes. But each principal has a wonderful song throughout the entire show, so I’m looking forward to opening night.”

When asked what the qualities are about Les Mis that cause it to endure, Michael points again to the music and story. “I can listen to the CD of Les Is and never get tired of it. And when Eponine dies and Fantine sings, I still get choked up when I listen to it. This is not a happy song and tap-dance chorus girls musical. It has its heavier parts, but is also balanced well with some lighter parts. Even at the end with the wedding scene, there is a lot of spectacle to this production.”

“This has been a great cast to work with and even with such a large cast and so much going on, it’s a pretty simple show when you break it down. When you get the entire cast on stage and arranged on that structure and they hit the finale in act one, it’s like ‘Wow!’. One woman in the cast has seen Les Mis 16 times and maybe more in several different countries and it’s her favorite musical. Age of the cast ranges from 9 to 50-plus and we also have a lot of new people in the cast. We have some great voices and a cast that can handle this type of production, so it should be a very memorable experience.”

 

Tickets for The Bay City Players production of Les Misérables are available by phoning 989-893-5555 or going to baycityplayers.com

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