By Wayne Harada
Where: Paliku Theatre, Windward Community College
When: Opens today (Sept. 20); 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 27. (Includes extension; call for availability; watch for more playdates).
Info: 235-7310, www.paliku.com
Note: An abridged version of this story appears today in the print edition of the Star-Advertiser, in the TGIF section.
A religious undercurrent prevails at the rehearsals of “Les Miserables,” the acclaimed Tony Award-winning musical, opening tonight (Sept. 20) at Paliku Theatre.
It can be heard in the music and felt in the performances.
The actors worship “Les Miz,” shedding tears at precise emotional moments, and most are visibly moved to finally have the opportunity to be in the musical, which has never been performed at Paliku before.
For Ronald Bright, directing the show for the first time, it’s been a somewhat of a spiritual journey that began in London several years ago. Mr. B, as he is called, is like a kid in the candy store as he crusades to make this his career pinnacle, and his crew treats him like deity.
Some of the music is performed joyously with the conviction of church gospels. That’s where the cultlike devotion emerges.
“I’ve had to wait over 20 years to do the one musical that rips my heart apart every time I experience the touching, most heart-wrenching moments the human heart, body and mind endures,” says the legendary director Bright, 80, about the phenom and spectacle that are “Les Miz,”
Producer Tom Holowach, who is manager of the Paliku Theatre, has said a prayer and a Hail Mary or two in his vigorous efforts to land rights. With royalties at the $25,000 level, this is gigantic, an Event. “We’re on the cutting edge,” Holowach says, noting that his theater at Windward Community College is first within the University of Hawaii system to take on a show this big.
The five-week run is expected to sell out, with a one-week extension just confirmed through Oct. 27.
After a 50-year career mounting musicals at public school venues before retiring from Castle High School (where a theater now bears his name), Mr. B is going full throttle with “Les Miz.” He dubs it “a masterpiece of a musical.”
Actor Michael Bright, the director’s son, was there with the family and a Castle contingent in London in 1988, when they first encountered “Les Miz.” “The air was stifling; we were in the last row,” says Michael. “The impact was riveting, from start to end. And when it was over, we all thought: ‘Dad could do this;’ God was going to make it happen. With faith, there were no barriers.”
Prayers were answered when Paliku secured the rights. It was on Mr. B’s bucket list. Though he’d directed such plums as “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon,” “Les Miz” was No. 1, and not yet conquered.
The director says the allure is in the production’s sweeping message.
“When Victor Hugo penned ‘to love another person is to see the face of God’ (one of the oft-quoted lines in the musical), he wasn’t just being poetic. He wrapped his life in support of the common man.”
Director Ron Bright: Finally, his dream show has arrived.
Bright is guiding an expansive cast of nearly 50 through song, dance and roller-coaster of emotions. The musical, with its beloved Alain Bloubil/Claude-Michel Schonberg score based on the Hugo novel taps themes of faith, guilt, war, freedom, redemption, love, heartbreak, patriotism and honor. Its tale is set against a French war and follows dissident students eager for a revolution. Think Occupy movement, in another era.
“We have gathered the best cast and crew I’ve ever worked with in my entire career,” Bright says. “It’s not to slight the many youngsters we’ve helped succeed in theatrical careers, but this cast is invested, committed, professional and so happy to be in this musical.”
Most of the actors didn’t already knew the score by heart when auditions were held. “When people come to blocking rehearsals free of carrying their scripts, you understand their sincere commitment,” Bright says.
The “Les Miz” lineup includes two operatic singers in the key lead roles they’ve never played before: Kip Wilborn, 51, is Jean Valjean, the protagonist, and Leslie “Buz” Tennent, 59, another crooner with operatic roots and a secondary career in local musical theater, is Valjean’s nemesis, Inspector Javert .
Their time is now.
THE PRODUCTION taps two of director Bright’s sons, Clarke Bright, 51, the musical director in the orchestra pit; his daytime job is maestro of the Royal Hawaiian Band. And the aforementioned
Michael, left, who just turned 46 this week, is a seventh grade math teacher at Kamehameha Schools’ Kapalama campus, who learned his acting chops — like scores of his peers — during dad’s Castle High School’s Performing Arts Center era. He is playing Enjolras, the leader of the French student revolutionists; he earlier went on to tour in such Broadway shows as “Miss Saigon.”
Clarke Bright’s mercurial research, studying and familiarizing himself with the musical score for “Les Miz,” is “the most intense and massive effort I have ever put forth for a musical. It is rich with emotion, passion, energy, color and power.”
His conclusion: “One of the revelations was the care taken to tell the story musically. Yes, we need the lyric, but you can almost listen to the music by itself and hear the passion behind the story. The lyrics are unbelievably powerful. It is our job to insure that we provide an orchestral bed upon which the performers can tell their story.”
He’ll conduct a 14-piece orchestra and says, “When you have a combination of excellence and joy in the pit, you can make beautiful music. It is an honor for me to partner with them in telling this amazing story.”
MAESTRO BRIGHT also explains why this is his favorite of all musicals: “I believe this musical is appreciated by so many because of the way everything works. The combination of acting, singing, orchestra, sets, lights, props, transitions ... is amazing. But above all else, it is the best story to ever be portrayed on a musical stage. It contains passion, sacrifice, love, forgiveness, fighting for your freedom, right vs. wrong — and how sometimes wrong seems right and right seems wrong.”
It’s all relatable and this sentiment percolates among the performers.
Cliffton Hall, 38, another CPAC alumnus who understudied and portrayed Marius on Broadway and on tour, is back from California as an Actors Equity guest artist inhabiting the same role; he portrayed Fiyero in “Wicked” here last year at Blaisdell Concert Hall, but a reunion with his high school chums in the cast — the first time in 20 years, under the mentorship of Mr. B — was a dream come true.
Clearly, Mr. B is the glue that keeps the cast cohesive. His enthusiasm on the sidelines is contagious and he has the stamina of someone half his age. He is quick to applaud, offers generous comments whenever something clicks, and provides latitude and space to his players he counts on to tell their stories via their roles.
“Chicken skin,” he cheers like a proud papa, when the ensemble — in luminous and glorious bursts of harmony and dancing, without costumes and props yet — set the bar for “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” led by Mary Chesnut Hicks, the vocal coach who put the finess in the finale of Act I, coupled with Marcelo Pacleb’s choreography.
SWEET-VOICED Wilborn, left, usually one of the first arrivals at rehearsals, goes over lines in his car then does warm-ups in the corridors, to get his pipes purring. “In opera, generally speaking, the voice and its use is the primary priority, followed by the music, then the text, then the acting. In this particular musical, I would say that the text is the primary, followed by the acting, voice and music,” says Wilborn.
An opera vet schooled to sing over the orchestra sans amplification, Wilborn lets the mike do its job. For two years in a Hal Prince production in Toronto of “The Phantom of the Opera,” first as Raoul and then as the Phantom, he learned “a great deal about letting ‘Mr. Microphone’ do a lot of the work.”
Though he missed an opportunity to sing Valjean in Canada, he now feels better prepared to do it now — because he’s older.
“As a classically trained singer, I have to constantly remind myself that in the very dramatic parts, I don’t have to produce the volume to sing over an orchestra,” says Wilborn. “I think most people identify with Valjean and I know I certainly do. He’s a good man driven to bitterness, anger and desperation — so much so that he robs a Bishop. Then the Bishop lets him off the hook but gives him the means (silver) to change his life; this is one of my favorite moments in the show. The Bishop says, ‘By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood; God has raised you out of darkness, I have brought your soul to God.’ Valjean is faced with the fact of God’s grace and mercy, in his subsequent soliloquy he has to decide what to do with it.”
That’s an opportunity to right a wrong, says Wilborn. “We all need a second chance now and then.” Valjean has dreamed of getting his “yellow ticket of leave” (the release papers from prison) and when he has them, “he finds that it is poison ... (the forms) prevent him from gaining employment, shelter, companionship.”
ABOUT THE book and play’s title “Les Miserables,” Wilborn shares a revelation: “We don’t have an accurate translation of the original French; the essence is: the poor, marginalized, homeless; in the epilogue, at Valjean’s death, he is freed from the ‘miserable’ struggles and trials of life and is liberated to the indescribable joy of finally being brought ‘home.’”
For him, that’s a religious punctuation point.
Were it not for his friend, vocal coach Hicks, informing him of the final auditions for the iconic play, Wilborn would have missed the tryouts altogether. When? “Tonight,” he was told. He made it, got a callback and earned the nod a few days later.
Bright says of Wilborn: “He was sent to us by God! I can’t understand why we have been so lucky to have him aboard; he is learned, invested, and so willing to share his professional experiences with the cast ad crew. What a role model for the rest of the cast; people have begun to emulate him.”
DEEP-VOICED Tennent, left, who teaches voice at Chaminade University, doesn’t view Javert as a villain — he sees him more as a tortured soul. “He’s 180 degrees from Captain Von Trapp (a role he’s sung in “The Sound of Music”),” he says. “The challenge is in exploring the dark places in his psyche, getting to the core. And because the role is operatic, I’m in my comfort zone; I really feel at home.”
Tennent’s loving it that “Javert deals with elements of grace, redemption and passion. He feels ‘my duty is to the law,’ and (when) Valjean grants him his life (allowing him to elude the bullet), he just doesn’t want the compromise of pity.”
The director also raves about Tennent, and his presence — “voice, stature, demeanor” — but “he’s quite the joker, a lifter of people’s spirits, sharing one-liners that crack us up.”
BROADWAY-SAVVY Hall’s, left, last show with Mr. B was two decades ago in “Carousel,” and coincidentally, he’s on a homecoming merry-go-round as he plays the romantic Marius. Not just because his school chums Michael Bright, Allan Lau and Leonard Villanueva are all in the cast, “but it’s a chance to give back to the community, to come back (after doing Broadway stints) as a visiting artist and working with the kids in the show.
“This (doing shows) is my 9 to 5, my livelihood, what I do; and God makes decisions sometimes that makes everything come together,” says Hall, a one-time military brat. “And I like paying to forward; it’s a lot of pressure, being an acting professional, but words can’t express the reception I’ve had from the cast and I can’t believe the caliber (of commitment) these people have. We’re all in it together and this is one of the reasons I love my job.”
However, there are caveats of being a role model: “I didn’t plan for anything else, other than acting, and it’s something my family constantly worries about — me getting another job. If you prepare for failure, then you will fail,” says Hall. “There is no security in this job; once you end one show, you start looking for another. To me, 80 per cent of acting is knowing who you are; 15 per cent is having a business sense; and 5 per cent is about talent.” So he accepts the challenges and cadence of his livelihood.
SHAWNA LYNN Masuda, 26, left, dyed her black hair blonde a while back, mostly because she needed change as a club singer, but she’ll don a dark-haired wig to play Eponine, the same role she did with DHT — her last time on the local stage.
“Eponine is big shoes to fill, especially since I did it before, but it’s the role I sought and still am personally drawn to. You don’t want her to be the same, so I’ve been trying to look for shades of character,” says Masuda.
She approached the auditions with trepidation and fear “because I hadn’t done a show for quite a while. Eponine feels older, because I am older, and she’s not as childish as I felt she was earlier. She’s strong-willed, a very strong person, and she’s much in love (with Marius), and wants him to be happy even if he doesn’t return the love,” Masuda says. “I feel like I know the show, but I’ve never really seen it, because I’ve only been in it. And I was too young when the touring shows played here (in 1992 and 1996).”
Working with Mr. B in one of his shows has been a goal, so she’s happy to participate “even if it means dying again.”
CAST AS COSETTE, Kim Anderson, 23, left, has discovered meaningful insights: “This is absolutely a dream show of mine...a story about love and the sacrifices that must be made to preserve the things you love. Everyone in this story is fighting for freedom. Freedom as a people, long repressed by government; freedom from our past; and the freedom to love. Combine this story of humanity with equally timeless music and it creates a tangible manifestation of what every human in every generation and country is longing for.”
Of the grownup Cosette she plays, Anderson says: “What I love most about her is that she is the symbol of hope in this story of misery. She represents the longing we all have for freedom and the joy that we can experience after fighting for it.”
She is very aware of the swarm of talent surrounding her every night. “It’s definitely intimidating being surrounded by so much professional talent but I am timidly acting like a sponge and absorbing every note they sing and expression they make. It’s a rare opportunity to be working so closely with this many veterans on stage. It’s a talent overload at rehearsals.
“I have beautiful solos that I am honored to sing but it’s when I’m singing with the entirety of the cast that I truly feel like I’m a part of something that matters. This is a lesson I have realized applies to life in general,” says Anderson.
JANA ANGUAY Alcain, 29, left, also can associate with her Fantine character, the ill-fated mother of Cosette, because she is a mommy of two daughters. “I absolutely love Fantine’s strength and the vulnerability that comes with it,” she says. “Being a mother, I can understand the desire to provide for my girls everything that I possibly can. Fantine is on stage for about 25 minutes, but those 25 minutes are crazy! It is vocally demanding (her solo is “I Dreamed a Dream”), and I am trusting and believing that Jesus is keeping me healthy and keeping my voice safe.”
She worked with Mr. B as a Castle student — “he is incredibly nurturing” — and finds her castmates “indescribable, being able to share this stage with people who I looked up to while growing up.”
In addition to her roles as wife and mom, Alcain is a fulltime volunteer as vocal director of New Hope Oahu.
A real-life husband and wife duo is portraying Thenardier and Mme. Thenardier, the comic relief pair operating a tavern in “Les Miz.” Scott Moura, 51, left, and his wife Zenia Moura, 40, two veterans of the local stage, take on the clowning on their “Master of the House” duet.
They share their relationship as new parents of an infant daughter, as community actors, as baby-sitters.
“Originally, Scott and I decided to both audition but let the deciding committee choose only one of us,” says Zenia Moura. “But I guess they liked the chemistry between us and (we) couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this so we both said yes. I like Mme. Thenardier because she’s loud, funny and doesn’t really care what people think of her. Comedy is always fun to do but I like this role because there is definitely some dark humor that I usually don’t get to play.”
SCOTT MOURA admits that the “House” tune was a challenge to master “and one of the most difficult but fun to learn because of some logical sequences,” he says. “It certainly keeps me motivated.”
Zenia concludes that the Thenardiers “are pretty horrible people,” with questionable motives in raising children. “However, one line of a song she sings says, ‘I used to dream that I would meet a prince,’ and that humanized her for me. She obviously had dreams about how here life would be or wished it could be, just like everyone else, and because of her circumstances and most likely bad choices, she ends up having a very different life than what she dreamed of — a little like Fantine.”
Despite Thenardier’s craftiness and greed, he does have a good side to balance his rough edge, said Scott.
The Mouras have brought their 4-year-old daughter Isabella to rehearsals when they couldn’t get a sitter and other parents have pitched in on babysitting. Besides, she loves the theater. “I think taking her to rehearsals and exposing her to the ins and outs of theater is a very unique thing that not all kids get to experience,” says Zenia. “I hope someday she will look back on these times and have some really fun memories.”
Zenia, left, had been a stay-at-home mom, but has rejoined the work force as an assistant kindergarten teacher at Trinity Christian School, where Isabella is a student. Scott is an electronics technician for the Honolulu Fire Department.
As a stage icon, “Les Miserables” continues to be an enduring and endearing player. It still is running in London in its original splendor, with the turntable stage and barricades; a brand new version previews March 1 at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway, leading to a March 23 premiere that will mark the show’s 25th anniversary, presented by original producer Cameron Mackintosh in a reimagined version said to be minus the barricades and with a “look” of French paintings in the time frame of the French revolution. A cast has yet to be announced.