Dexter, left, as Jean Valjean, sings to Colette Smith, playing young Cosette. In back are Beth Gumnick and Rodney Van Valkenburg as the Thernardiers.Photo by Photo from Chattanooga Theatre Centre.
Director George Quick says the Chattanooga Theatre Centre was looking for "something spectacular" to cap its 90th season and propel the community theater into its second century when "Les Miserables" was chosen.
It's a classic in musical theater for good reason: beautiful, vocally demanding score; huge production in sets and costuming; lots of roles in a wide age span. Best of all: "Les Miz" had never been done before at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre.
"The film had come out; we knew there was something about this show that people liked and responded to," says Quick. "Plus, because there are so many opportunities for participation for volunteers, actors and singers, it seemed like a good choice for us to do."
"Les Miserables" is based on Victor Hugo's tale of redemption and revolution set in early 19th-century France. Ex-convict Jean Valjean, imprisoned 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, has been freed. With a second chance at life, he tries to be a force for good, striving to change not just his life but those around him for the better. But Valjean can't escape his past because he is dogged by Inspector Javert, whose obsession with returning Valjean to prison has become his life's mission.
The musical's score is filled with emotion, from tear-jerkers such as "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Bring Him Home" to the triumphant "Do You Hear the People Sing?" Any successful production of "Les Miz" hinges on casting the right actors/singers whose voices can handle the demanding score -- almost three hours of singing nightly. Quick was more than pleased at the local auditions.
IF YOU GO
■ What: "Les Miserables."
■ When: 8 p.m. Fridays, July 11, 18, 25; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, July 12, 19, 26; 7 p.m. Thursdays, July 17, 24; 2:30 p.m. Sundays, July 20, 27.
■ Where: Chattanooga Theatre Centre, 400 River St.
■ Tickets: $30 opening night, $25 other performances, $12.50 side section seating for Thursday and Sunday performances.
■ Phone: 423-267-8534.
■ Website: www.theatrecentre.com.
Jean Valjean: Michael Dexter
Javert: Greg Glover
The Bishop of Digne: Gregory Jackson
Fantine: Kendra Gross
Young Cosette: Brooke Raughton and Colette Smith alternate role
Cosette: Kaylor Bennett
Young Eponine: Brooke Raughton and Colette Smith alternate role
Eponine: Lauren Johnson
Marius: Thomas West
Madame Thenardier: Beth Gumnick
Thenardier: Rodney Van Valkenburg
■ Friday, July 11: Opening-night gala, 7 p.m.
■ Thursday, July 17: Real-time captioning, 7 p.m.
■ Friday, July 18: Q&A with director and cast after 8 p.m. performance.
■ Friday, July 25: Girls Night Out, 8 p.m.
"We had 160 people audition for this show -- a great deal of talent, so it was actually hard to cast," he says of choosing the 30 actors in this production.
Another tricky aspect of casting leads is that practically all musical-theater buffs have seen either a stage production of "Les Miserables" or the Oscar-winning movie and have preconceived ideas about the roles.
Surprisingly, that was not the case with the CTC's new lead. Michael Dexter, who is making his CTC debut as Jean Valjean, had never seen "Les Miserables." The actor has performed in off-Broadway productions and at Lincoln Center, yet had never seen this musical -- "an embarrassing confession being the musical-theater nerd that I am," he jokes.
Being cast at the CTC is a high-profile homecoming for this 2002 graduate of Center for Creative Arts. He is also a graduate of the University of Miami's Frost School of Music and is an advanced composer/lyricist in the BMI Musical Theater Workshop. Dexter returned to Chattanooga to pursue a master's degree in vocal performance and secondary music teacher certification from UTC. He says he auditioned because his friend, Tim Hinck, is directing the CTC's orchestra and encouraged him to try out.
"He has quite an extensive resume, and we are fortunate to have him here," Quick says of Dexter. "I am continually impressed with his voice and his acting. I think having an African-American in the role makes it even richer."
"I am not sure what nuances I bring to Valjean, but I do know that the character delivers to me a real human experience, which allows me to transform into a Valjean I believe to be very impressive and arresting," says the actor.
Pursuing Dexter will be Greg Glover as Javert. Dexter says the two share a lot of laughs offstage but onstage have "an all-out war."
"We immediately became good friends," says Glover. "We get a whole lot from each other through the confrontations we have. It's fun to flip that switch and get into a physical fight, then turn it off and laugh about it," says Glover.
Glover says the hardest part of his role is playing a villain whose obsession is not grounded in reality.
"Javert goes through this whole journey thinking he's doing God's will," he says. "Jean shows him over and over that God has a plan he might not be privy to. By the end, he figures out that what he has devoted his whole life to is not taking him as close to God as he thought it would. It's such an interesting journey."
"We have a very solid cast," says Quick. "Many people in the ensemble have played leading roles on our stage. And there are great young people who are new to our stage and are just terrific."
"The set is big and amazing. The cast is so wonderful and the age range is great," agrees Glover. "There are kids all the way up to some of us who have been wanting to do this play for the last 25 years.
"Some of us have been rehearsing this in our showers for a quarter-century," jokes Glover. "I saw 'Les Miz' when I was a senior in high school in New York, and this and 'Phantom of the Opera' made me fall in love with musical theater."
Quick says Saturday matinees have been added to the musical's schedule in anticipation of the demand for tickets. A half-price discount is offered on seating in the theater's side sections on Thursday and Sunday performances only.
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...