By Josette Keelor
A small window of opportunity has allowed the famed musical "Les Miserables" to come to the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre at Shenandoah University.
What Director Hal Herman called part opera, part musical, "Les Mis," which begins Wednesday, will join three other musicals this summer for the 30th season of the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre. "Chicago" will run June 26-July 7, "Crazy For You" July 10-July 21 and "Shrek The Musical" July 24-Aug. 4.
"Les Mis" has never been released to professional theater programs like SSMT because it's been on Broadway and on national tours consistently for years, Herman said.
With the recent Hollywood film starring Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert, SSMT was able to secure the rights, which slowly have been becoming available since the Broadway musical's 25th anniversary last year.
"We're one of the few," he said.
But it's not just that a musical of such magnanimous proportions will be in Winchester this month. It's that Broadway caliber stars will perform the leading roles.
Stephen Paul Cramer, who plays Jean Valjean, performed the role for a year on Broadway and for three years nationally. A cover while on Broadway, he was contracted to perform the role once a week.
Christopher Sanders, who now lives in Winchester, previously has performed as Javert and also portrayed Emile in SSMT's "South Pacific" in 2011.
"These," Herman said, "are what I would call super talents. Rich, strong voices, well-controlled with great understanding of who they are, and they're cast carriers."
"The rest of the cast is very strong," he said. But Cramer and Sanders do what they are supposed to do -- they carry the show.
"You have to have voices, or you don't have a show," Herman said.
Sanders described his character as the antagonist, even though he's not truly the villain of the story.
"He's very black and white that believes once a person has broken the law, there is no redemption," Sanders said. But it's a character flaw, he said, not a jail sentence. The challenge for Sanders as an actor is showing Javert is human.
"I don't want the audience to hate him," he said. "There has to be moments where he's not always so evil."
As Valjean, Cramer is the hero, but his role shares many similarities to that of Sanders' Javert.
"When I did the show before, they used the word 'animal.' He was an animal." When the musical begins, Valjean has been in prison for 19 years -- five years for stealing bread to feed his starving family, and another 15 for trying to escape.
"The world hates him," Cramer said. "He'll always be branded as a convict."
But after a bishop shows him kindness and offers him forgiveness that the world refuses him, Valjean changes his identity so he can begin a new life for himself.
"He's not as black and white as Javert," Cramer said.
Sanders called the cast phenomenal.
Rick Wesley and Robin Higginbotham play innkeepers and overall villains the Thenardiers, which Sanders called "really the only comic relief in the show, and it's so needed."
Writers Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil constructed such a great story from the book by Victor Hugo, Sanders said, "They knew just when to lighten it up. It's very smartly written."
Cramer added to Herman, "Vocally you have constructed a great cast."
Libby Ingham plays Fantine and Trish Epperson her grown daughter Cosette. Morgan McDowell plays Cosette's lover Marius, and Lara Treacy plays Eponine, daughter of the Thenardiers' who also is in love with Marius.
Local youth portray the musical's few roles for children -- Vivian Sansoni as young Cosette, Jordan Thompson as young Eponine and Jordan Armel as revolutionist and Eponine's younger brother Gavroche.
According to Sanders, preparing for his role has not been made more difficult by the recent film version of the musical.
After actress Anne Hathaway won best actress in a supporting role for her portrayal in the film, Sanders said, "Probably the hardest part in the cast will be our poor Fantine."
"They took so many liberties with the song," he said. But the stage version is totally different format, he said.
"They made a lot of changes in the film that would not have been made [on stage]. You can't create that on state. So it's a different perspective."
"I think the audience will get a very pure version of how this show is to be done," he said. "It's true to the original."
Herman did not entirely agree. He's seen the show performed more than most other people have, but watching Cramer and Sanders perform, "I think it was the most exciting experience I have ever seen."
The Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre will perform "Les Miserables" June 12-23, "Chicago" June 26-July 7, "Crazy For You" July 10-21 and "Shrek The Musical" July 24-Aug. 4. Adult tickets are $27 for Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday matinees and $28 for Friday and Saturday evenings, and $25 for seniors and children. For more information, call 877-580-8025 or visit shenandoahsummermusictheatre.com.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org