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Center Stage

‘Les Miz’ magic finally lights up local theater

3/19/2014

“Les Miserables” will show at Des Moines Community Playhouse from March 20 - April 13: Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m; Sunday at 2 p.m.; plus Saturday, March 29 at 1 p.m. and a “school matinee” on Tuesday, April 1 at 9:30 a.m.

“Les Miserables” will show at Des Moines Community Playhouse from March 20 – April 13: Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m; Sunday at 2 p.m.; plus Saturday, March 29 at 1 p.m. and a “school matinee” on Tuesday, April 1 at 9:30 a.m.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: “Les Misérables” will pack a wallop the likes of which has never before hit Des Moines community theater. A big number like “One Day More,” the Act I closer, will put roughly 45 players onstage, calling Paris to the barricades. The cast, in fact, will be the largest ever for a Playhouse production, with the youngest a second-grader. Adults and children rush on and off as solos and duets alternate with crowd scenes, keeping the energy high enough to sustain audience members for nearly three hours.

Sarah Hinzman, an Ensemble member and company regular, said, “The Playhouse has really stepped up to the plate on this,” but the Playhouse isn’t the only one. “Les Miz” opened on Broadway in 1987, but only this last year did it release production rights, and companies from Florida to Oregon have seized their chance. Here in Iowa, Newton will wrap up its production just as this one gets underway. On top of that, not long ago the film was playing everywhere. So what can Des Moines bring to the party? 

“Overall artistic balance,” responded John Viars, director (and a Playhouse executive).

Viars says he’s happy to share the job with an assistant, a music director and a choreographer. When he ticks off the musical’s major themes — form the power of love to the pressures of economic inequality — he emphasizes the participation of the company.

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“The system here requires that everyone take responsibility for holding up the story,” he explained.

His cast, fittingly, is stocked with veterans. Steve Berry, stepping into the plus-size shoes of Jean Valjean, first appeared at the Playhouse in 1974. Long resumes also turn up among many in the Ensemble. Samantha Arneson, Peter Pan in the holiday show, here sings nameless. Tim Wisgerhof once again handled the set and again created a vivid frame, spilling off the stage to either side yet on the money in its 19th-Century detail. During the rehearsal I watched, the troupe was working out the first act’s cart crash, with intense collaboration among players, crew and director.

“Les Miz” demands such teamwork. It remains a mysterious success, in which the whole proves greater than its parts. The Victor Hugo novel (1862) sprawls impossibly, its obsessions awfully extreme for contemporary audiences. When a skeletal version of the story was put to song in 1980 Paris, France, it was in a concept album, and when the musical first played in English, in London, it earned tepid reviews. Yet magic was afoot. Certainly much of that magic is in the tunes, almost 50 of them, some as powerful as opera. At the Playhouse, Viars began with the music. The cast spent a month working solely on songs.

“So far as musical theater is concerned, this is the most compelling in the country,” he said. “I’m thrilled to at last bring it home.”  CV

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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