OPENING NIGHT CHAT CHOICE: The 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables at the Ahmanson takes its audience on a memorable journey, earning an unusually long and thunderous standing ovation at the finale. The actors’ performances often stop the show and perfectly complement the new staging, visual projections and orchestrations.
Chasten Harmon, who wasn’t even born when the show premiered in London in 1985, plays Ã‰ponine and delivers a gloriously original rendition of “On My Own”. “I never imagined I’d play this role,” she says. “I listened to the show over and over again in high school and thought I love it so much but they’ll never cast me.”
Harmon initially sang “He Touched Me” at her audition. “When they asked for something more poppy, I sang ‘Once Upon A Time’ from the musical, Brooklyn. Then, they asked if I learned ‘I Dreamed A Dream’. I said no, but I have ‘On My Own’ — although we had so little time to prepare I wasn’t familiar with exactly how it was written in the sheet music. So, I just went for it and I think they liked that my rendition was so different.” Harmon grins and adds, “But it was only because I didn’t have a preconceived notion of how it was supposed to be sung.”
Her subtle but well-chosen riffs rip across the footlights. “A lot of directors will expect you to be a cookie cutter of someone else, but they allowed me to do what I wanted and make the role my own. I’m very grateful for that.”
Although the visuals are stunning, no one walks away humming them. The masterful Robert Billig conducts the tightly driven, impeccable orchestra. He conducted the Broadway company for over three years. “It originally ran three hours and 15 minutes, but a lot has been cut because if the show is under three hours they don’t have to pay overtime.” He smiles, “It’s now just under three hours. There are some things I miss but others were extraneous.”
Billig explains changes to the original orchestrations. “Cameron Mackintosh wanted to take the show out of the ’80s and bring it into the 21st Century. It’s now much more symphonic and orchestral rather than synthesizer-driven. We have two keyboards but they are playing orchestral sounds rather than synthesized electronic sounds.” Speaking of sounds, while Billig listens carefully at auditions to ensure hiring strong voices, “ultimately you have to trust that someone isn’t going to try out for a role they can’t sustain. We have had problems with people whose voices have given out and had to leave. It’s a hard show. Each role has two covers within the ensemble but we don’t have alternates.”
After the opening weekend, Billig returns to NY to audition would-be replacements for Michael Kostroff, whose contract for the role of Mr. Thénardier is ending.Â “In this case, for a character villain, you want someone who can handle the comedic side ofÂ ‘Master of the House’. This role is so specific that we give actors the material beforehand so we can hear how it sits in their voice and how they interpret the material.”
J. Mark McVey embodies Jean Valjean with a charismatic energy and a glorious voice that includes a heavenly falsetto. Speaking after the show, he says that he tells Valjean’s story “from the perspective of a Christian, and I think the message of grace and redemption runs throughout the piece. It’s a timeless story, and with everything happening in the world these days it does tend to ring true.”
Originally cast as Valjean in the 1988 first national tour, McVey has over 2900 performances under his belt. “I then went into the original Broadway and London companies before hanging up my Valjean hat for a while and doing a few other Broadway musicals.” Although he’s a veteran of Tommy, Showboat, Chess, Carousel and My Fair Lady, the role of Valjean is particularly taxing on the voice. “I generally do seven of the eight shows a week. It’s a grinding schedule because we have five shows between Friday and Sunday, so to maintain vocal stability I may take off either Sunday night or matinee. You can push the voice too far and it’s done all the time. I’m the third Valjean in this company.”
McVey is careful about protecting his instrument. “Although I’m normally not a teetotaler, I don’t have any alcohol, drink well over a gallon of water and sleep seven or eight hours a night.” He laughs when asked about vocalizing. “I wake up vocalizing and do a lot of praying. I try to walk the walk and praise the Lord. I talk to him all the time and thank him. It’s a way of life especially when I’m doing this show, because I want everyone who sees it to have the best possible experience. My dedication is necessary in order for the audience to “˜get’ every single message in it. I believe this is where God has placed me and this is what he wants me to do. So, I take it very seriously and do the best job I can do every single day.”
McVey’s career began at the age of five, when he was the boy soprano and soloist in his church. Although he also has a BA in Marketing, with his enormous talent it’s doubtful McVey will be falling back on that skill any time soon.
The production continues at the Ahmanson through July 31.
CHAT SPOTLIGHT: Actors are primarily creative interpreters, but every so often — perhaps out of sheer frustration — they may become creative decision makers as they write, co-produce and star in a story they believe needs to be told. Sean Galuszka premieres his one-act play Poison Apple at the Celebration Theatre during the Hollywood Fringe Festival on June 22,Â directed by co-producer Susan Lambert, prior to an unusual run at secret venues through July before it returns to the Celebration in August. Galuszka explains, “We’re doing something really cool by starting a text campaign, which includes exclusive details and a pre-show story via texts between the characters. You get to hear their dialogue before you come to the show and the storyline leads right up to the entrance of one of the characters. Our director is a genius. Also, in July you will have to text the word “poison” to 41411 in order to get the latest updates and locations.”Â In August you can save your cell phone minutes and see them at the Celebration Aug. 9-10 and 16-17.
Galuszka began writing the play during long waits on a film set. “I heard a story about a guy visiting New York that was so horrific and incredible I thought it had to be an urban legend. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. To process and understand it I began writing in the notes section of my Ipod while sitting in that little trailer for ten hours.” The two-character play will co-star Chris Sams, who last appeared with Galuszka in The Boys In The Band at the Coast Playhouse.
And, what savvy techie producer would be without a YouTube video?Â Poison Apple info can also be found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c59DIZ3Yh9Y
CHIT CHAT: In September the Pasadena Playhouse will present South Street, a new musical by Richard Addrisi and Craig Carlisle, directed by Richard Castellano. The title refers to Philadelphia’s legendary street. Previews start Sept. 13″¦Angelenos Ilene Graff and Ken Page were flown to NY for the first private industry reading of Abraham Tetenbaum and Norman L. Berman’s musical, First Kids, directed by Paul Kreppel and Murphy Cross. Both LA based writers are happy to report future readings and productions are currently being lined up. The cast included Elizabeth Gillies (star of Nickelodeon’s Victorious) and triple threat youngsters from Broadway’s Billy Elliot, Elf and Mary Poppins.
THE BOOK NOOK: Rob Lowe’s Stories I Only Tell My Friends is a beautifully written page-turner, placing you smack inside the life of this young boy from Dayton, Ohio who realized his dream and became a movie star at the age of 15.Â Lowe’s insightful and eye-opening tale of Francis Coppola’s cut-throat auditions for The Outsiders, his explanation of how the term “Brat Pack” was created, the romance with Princess Stephanie and shocking murder of a new friend, why he left The West Wing and much more is a great read yet he never resorts to writing a Hollywood tell-all. Given all the details reported elsewhere, it’s surprising Lowe glosses over his infamous sex tape video in just a few short paragraphs. But he is justifiably proud of the way in which he re-directed his life to a much-needed turn around by achieving sobriety, becoming a man in the true sense of the word, a husband for over 20 years to the wife he still adores and proud father of two sons.
CHAT CITE: “You’ve achieved success in your field when you don’t know whether what you’re doing is work or play” — Warren Beatty.
** Les Miserables production photography by Ryan Miller
Sean Galuszka photo by Susan Lambert
Rob Lowe photo by Sam Jones