Even after more than two decades, Nicholas Saverine said he is still discovering new ways of interpreting “Les Miserables,” a much-honored musical he has performed all over the world, from Broadway to the first national tour to a European tour – and even here in Wichita five years ago for Music Theatre.
Saverine, a Philadelphia native who considers Wichita his “adult home” because of his degree from Wichita State University and his countless appearances with local theaters, will lead the cast again when MTW’s new production of “Les Miserables” opens Wednesday night in Century II.
“Over the years, I’ve sung every male role except for Gavroche (the street urchin) and Marius (the naive idealistic student),” said operatic tenor/baritone Saverine, now mostly known for his stirring portrayal of protagonist Jean Valjean, a peasant who was unjustly imprisoned for 19 years before escaping to reinvent himself as a reformed and prosperous businessman.
On the European tour, he alternated every few nights between Valjean and his nemesis, police Inspector Javert, whose obsession with bringing the escapee to justice becomes his undoing.
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“I was essentially playing against myself,” he said.
“What keeps bringing me back is that the show is in my blood. I thought the last time I played Valjean in Wichita literally would be the last time. It was such a quintessential production that I was ready to put my ‘Les Mis’ career on the shelf,” Saverine said.
“But as many times as I’ve done it, I’m never sorry to be in another production. Valjean is the performance that I love the most because I am still discovering new things about him.”
What’s new this time around?
“When the ex-con Valjean is cleaned up and in a new suit, he isn’t suddenly a gentleman. He has done bad things in his life. In the opening soliloquy, I play something from the novel rather than the musical to show how hard it is for him, how he takes one step forward and two steps back toward his redemption,” Saverine said.
“If you find yourself taking longer to like Valjean in this production, that’s by design.”
The musical was adapted from Victor Hugo’s classic novel of life on the mean streets of 19th-century France by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schoeberg, with music by Schoenberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. It opened in London in 1985, became the longest-running musical in West End history in 2006 and, now in its 27th year, is still running.
It opened on Broadway in 1987 and ran for 16 years, winning eight Tony Awards, then was revived in 2006 for another two years, and is being revived again next spring, thanks to enduring and stirring music like “I Dreamed a Dream,” “A Heart Full of Love,” “Do You Hear the People Sing” and “One Day More.”
Normally, Music Theatre of Wichita lets a musical cool off for a decade before bringing it back, but when Wayne Bryan, MTW’s producing artistic director, got an invitation to be one of only a handful of regional productions this year to do the show before rights are withdrawn for all but next March’s return to Broadway, he jumped at the chance.
“It’s only been five years since we did it, but it was so well-received we decided to go for it because we didn’t know when it would ever be available again,” Bryan said.
Joe Locarro, a veteran “Les Mis” performer who directed the 2008 MTW production, was recruited again, bringing along his assistant director, Suzanne Viverito, whom he characterizes as a “master of physicalizing the characters,” to be his drill sergeant with the cast. Original set designer Bruce Brockman was brought back to re-create his versatile, multi-layered vision with lights by David Neville and sound by David Muehl. Elaborate period costumes are by Debbie Roberts.
Music Director Thomas W. Douglas will lead a 22-piece orchestra in a show that is virtually sung through with no musical breaks.
Besides Saverine, back for another go-round in the cast are Tim and Karen Robu as the obnoxious, criminally devious, comic-relief innkeepers, the Thenardiers. Director Locarro thinks they are the only married couple to play the roles opposite each other in a professional production.
Both Robus, who have been fixtures of MTW and Crown Uptown Theatre for two decades, admit that revisiting the Thenardiers is a little deja vu – but in a good way.
“It’s nice to come back to a show and realize how much you remember. It’s coming along a lot quicker,” said Karen Robu. Adds Tim: “For an old character actor like me, it’ll be fun to do again – but this time, it’ll be more fun because I won’t just have had knee surgery. I’ll be able to move around quite a bit more for the ‘Master of the House’ number.”
Playing driven Inspector Javert for the first time is Kevyn Morrow, best remembered here as King Triton in “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” two seasons back.
“I don’t normally get nervous on stage, but the complexity and inner turmoil of this role make it challenging. My musicals are mostly lighter, so I haven’t had much opportunity to do darker roles,” said Morrow, who was in the original Broadway casts of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Dream,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “Leader of the Pack” and in the closing 1990 cast of the iconic “A Chorus Line.”
“He’s dark and he’s mean, but he’s a villain only on the surface. I think of him as protagonist, not antagonist. He was born in prison and has been trying his whole life to get away from that,” Morrow said. “He’s trying to be a good person and do what he thinks God wants. But he’s a black-and-white person who gets lost in his own dream of righteousness.”
Making her MTW debut as Fantine, a dying single mother whose “I Dreamed a Dream” is a showstopper, is Eleanor Fishman, a New Jersey native and junior at the University of Michigan. MTW’s Bryan describes her voice as one with a “burnished intensity.”
“I first became aware of the show with the 10th anniversary recording, and then I was in a student productions as Cosette, Fantine’s daughter. I’ve had to grow up a little to play the mother,” said Fishman, who jokes that she should probably be a little intimidated by Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-winning performance in the 2012 movie version.
“It’s a broken-hearted song from when she thought she had a future. It’s the last straw. She was abandoned by the man she loved. She is fired from her job. She thinks her life is over,” Fishman said. “But her driving force is her daughter. I can connect with that feeling of putting someone you love before yourself.”
Playing Marius, the passionately idealistic if politically naive student, is Ian Patrick Gibb, an Oklahoma City native who first appeared with MTW as a boy of 12 and later was in the resident company in 2008 and 2009. Gibb comes to MTW’s “Les Mis” directly after three years with the 25th anniversary national tour.
“I always say this is a show I was born to be in because I was born in 1985 (the same year ‘Les Mis’ debuted),” Gibb said with a laugh. “I fell in love with the music when I was 10. When I was older, I understood that it was a great story of redemption, that Hugo was saying that through struggle, you can reach perfection. I was in two student productions, then went into the national tour at 25. I’ve had a great run with the show.”
Gibb said he identifies with Marius in that “I am a huge romantic. I believe you should fight for what you believe. When we were performing in Wisconsin, protestors at the statehouse (over labor issues sparked by controversial Gov. Scott Walker) were singing ‘Do You Hear the People Sing.’ It was really touching and inspiring.”
Other key players are Shaun-Michael Morse as the bishop who helps turn Valjean’s life around by believing in him; Carolyn Anne Miller as Eponine, daughter of the terrible Thenardiers, who joins Marius’ protesters because she secretly loves him; Sean Ronayne as Enjolras, Marius best friend and leader of the student revolutionaries; Ze’ev Barmor as feisty street urchin Gavroche; Emma Boyle as Young Cosette, and Hannah Kintzel as Young Eponine.