Dana Oland: 'Les Miz' cast brings generations together

Kids on set bring a different feel to Idaho Shakespeare Festival rehearsals

doland@idahostatesman.comJuly 4, 2014 

  • Ticket info

    LES MISERABLES: 8 p.m. July 4 (preview) and July 5 (opening), 7 p.m. July 6 (family night), and dates through Aug. 31, ISF Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise. Find ticket information on page 23.

Every actor has it - the story of when they got their first moments on stage and discovered their love of theater.

For Stephen Mitchell Brown, who plays Jean Valjean, it was his second-grade production of "Professor Longears Saves the Day."

"I got the lead because I had the loudest voice in the class," the powerhouse tenor says.

For Keri Rene Fuller, 20, who plays Eponine, it was getting cast in a production of "Annie" when she was 11.

"I didn't know you were supposed to audition with something from a musical," she says. "I sang the theme from 'Flashdance.' "

For 9-year-old Reilly Ramos, of Boise, her moment came just two months ago when she found herself cast in Idaho Shakespeare Festival's production of "Les Miserables," which opens this weekend.

"It's very exciting and fun," says Reilly, who is a self-possessed young girl with a clear soprano. "The first time I sang with the whole cast watching I was nervous, then I just told myself it would be fine if I just did my best."

It's unusual at Idaho Shakespeare Festival to have a cast with this large a span of ages - from veteran performers to ingenues to children who, like Reilly, are having their first professional experience.

And both sides of the age spectrum are learning from each other, says Brown, who works closely with the two Young Cosettes.

"As an adult you can get very much into your own head and you can make things super complicated," he says. "When you see the kids get up there, you're reminded of simplicity and how powerful that can be when it comes from a pure place. It reminds you of what it's like to be a kid and just play."

Kids on set change the dynamic a bit. The adults try to watch their language - though there sometimes are slips and resulting giggles from the kids - and they're very aware of the impression they make on the younger performers, says choreographer Greg Daniels.

"The fist time Keri died as Eponine - one of the Gavroches was really crying. He was so there in the moment. It's a great reminder of what we do here. If you're getting to a 9-year-old, you're doing something right."

Rehearsals get long and kids get bored.

The boys play games on their smartphones while the girls draw or write in their journals. They start to tease and giggle, and get shushed by stage managers and kid wranglers. When there's a break, the rest of the cast takes a breather; the kids run up and give them hugs, they traipse up and down the stairs of the set and pretend even more.

"Les Miserables" is a musical retelling of Victor Hugo's epic novel, which explores the lives of the oppressed and downtrodden in 19th century France, centered around the June Rebellion of 1832 in Paris. The conflict was sparked by a cholera outbreak that devastated the lower class and that claimed the life of populist Gen. Jean Lamarque.

Its central character Jean Valjean (Brown) serves 19 years of hard labor for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread. He is released on parole, but the papers he must present that says he's a criminal make it impossible for him to start anew. He breaks parole, sheds his identity and rebuilds his life, helping others as he goes, with the doggedly righteous Inspector Javert in pursuit.

The musical was presented to the world by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987. Though its latest revival is currently running on Broadway with a cast of 40, many people know the story from the 2012 film starring Hugh Jackman.

Director Victoria Bussert is re-envisioning her "Les Miz" with a repertory cast of 20 who, outside of the leads and the kids, each play multiple roles.

Reilly is one of four child performers who play the musical's two young roles. She shares the role of Young Cosette, the daughter of Fantine, who tragically dies in Act 1, with Annabel Kotek, 6.

Young Cosette sings the sweet music-box tune "Castle on a Cloud" under very tragic circumstances, Bussert says.

"Reilly is able to very easily access that world and just step into that life. I love watching Reilly and the other kids because what comes so naturally to them is pretending," she says.

Eligh Kindall, 13, of Meridian, shares the role of Gavroche with Jackson Leach, 12. Gavroche is the street urchin who knows everything that happens in his impoverished neighborhood of Paris where he lives without parents. He dies on the barricade helping the revolutionaries.

Eligh has done children's theater, but this is his first professional gig and he's learning a lot, he says.

"There are all these professional actors giving me tips," he says. "It's kind of cool - tell me how to sing something or what a line means - stuff like that.

"Gavroche is brave and thinks he's bigger than he is. That's been hard for me, so our choreographer (Daniels) is teaching me how to stand so I can be bigger."

Fuller, 20, says most of what she learns is by watching and listening to her fellow performers.

"It's been great to watch and learn from the older actors in the room," she says. "They have a laser focus on and off stage. It's astounding to me. You learn a great deal of professionalism and you aspire to be like them. It's a really great place to be."

Having children in the room sets a different tone during rehearsals, Bussert says.

"Whenever the kids perform, the adult company is glued to them, and we see them get better with every run through," she says. "That's really exciting to watch."

And in a show that's filled with so much tragedy and heartache, kids help keep spirts high, Daniels says.

"They keep the company all upbeat," he says. "They're drawing pictures for people, giving hugs, so that helps keep things lighthearted."

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