The French Revolution is coming to Placerville, and Imagination Theater is ready.
The cast and crew have been manning the bulwarks, creating a set design that promises to capture the sprawling tale of love and honor against a backdrop of political uprising, encompassing a wide range of human emotions as they present “Les Miserables,” the most successful musical in theater history. The captivating performances will run for a month at the theater on the El Dorado County Fairgrounds, Nov. 29 through Dec. 29.
A rare holiday treat is in store for the public, as Director Peter Wolfe and his talented team present the classic musical that portrays Victor Hugo’s historical novel, written in 1862, that explores the lives of several memorable characters, including Jean Valjean, a prisoner who escapes and is pursued by policeman Javert throughout the tale.
Unfolding in the midst of that story line are the lives of many others, with portrayals that run the gamut of human existence. Questions of religion, justice, law and grace are explored. The songs alone breathe vibrant life and deep emotion into the play and are worth the admission price; general seating is $15.
To appear in “Les Miserables” is an actor’s dream, according to those in IT’s production. To star, even better.
“I have been acting since I was a kid,” said Dennis Murray, who has landed the coveted role of Javert, a ruthless lawman who is in a lifelong pursuit of Jean Valjean. “I have always talked of being able to do ‘Les Mis,’ and it’s a part I have always wanted.
“It is the creme dela creme.”
Describing his character, Murray said, “I am the law, with emphasis on ‘the’ law. I’m the chief inspector of police in Paris, and my life has always been, unswervingly, about the law. I’m onstage from Scene 1, when Valjean breaks his parole, and I spend my whole life deciding to find Jean Valjean.”
As circumstances unfold, Javert finds himself struggling to align his black-and-white beliefs with situations that leave him questioning his very existence and life’s meaning.
“I am tormented,” Murray said. “I always have been dedicated to God and the law … and at the end it destroys me.”
Loyal fans of Imagination Theater may recall Murray’s performance as “Renfield” in “Dracula.”
Another IT veteran, Jeremy Carlson, will portray Javert’s nemesis, Jean Valjean, a part to which he, too, has aspired.
“It is a part I’ve always wanted, absolutely,” said Carlson. “It doesn’t get much better than this.”
Carlson said the musical challenges of “Les Miserables” are “very appealing,” as he majored in music at Pacific Union College in Napa. The astounding musical numbers help the story progress, he said, a story of humankind then and now.
“It really speaks to humanity in general, and a lot of the things that people dealt with back then are what we face today,” he said.
Another lead character, Fantine, who is forced to leave her out-of-wedlock daughter at an orphanage, will be played by Holly Salvestrin, another IT regular. Fantine is haunted and driven by the choice she had to make, and she does everything in her power to make sure her daughter is safe and loved.
Once again, the role is a pinnacle of ambition, according to the actress.
“It’s a dream role,” said Salvestrin simply. “It is so moving and so powerful to watch Fantine do everything for her daughter. The emotions are so deep and it’s up to me to capture that.”
Salvestrin said she looks forward to the singing she will be doing in “Les Miserables,” and she added that it has been fascinating to watch and help as the tiny theater has been able to put together its largest-ever production.
“You know, IT is really supported locally, and it very definitely pulls such a huge part of the community together,” she reflected. “I’ve heard so many say, ‘How are you going to do it?’ when it comes to putting on the most successful musical ever, and I just tell them to come and see.”
Salvestrin said the lion’s share of the credit goes to Wolfe, who not only directs the actors and supervises the production but also designed the sets, which occur on a small stage in an equally small theater. The battles, confrontations and other elaborate scenes are difficult to imagine — unless you’re Peter Wolfe, according to Salvestrin.
“The sets are amazing,” she said. “Peter designed them, using varying, multiple levels, and it really works. We’re able to capture such a powerful production, and present this story, a story that really is one of hope.”
Playing the orphaned daughter Cosette is Emily Bonham, a senior at El Dorado High School who was torn about giving up a role in EDHS’ current play to try out for a part in “Les Miserables.”
“I even thought about doing both, because (EDHS drama teacher) Paul Tomei is absolutely the best — but if I did both, I was going to cry,” said Bonham, who has acted in many high school productions and in several IT plays as well. “I simply couldn’t work in both, and this role as Cosette is my first lead role.”
Bonham, who has performed at IT since she was in seventh grade, added that she nearly was cast as Eponine, but found she “couldn’t sing that low,” and so became Cosette. “I’ve been having a lot of fun,” she said. “Singing is what I am best at.”
Bonham said she looks forward to a possible career in acting, and explained her love of the art.
“I’ve always been amazed at the magic of theater,” she said. “Whatever you feel coming into the theater, if the actors are doing their job you will feel something quite special when you leave. It may be as simple as a song that first makes you cry and then leaves you cheering with joy.”
Helping the cast sing with passion and joy during “Les Miserables” is Dr. Dale Wallerstein, who said she is “excited and maybe just a bit stressed” by all the work and labors of love that have gone into the production.
“We’ve been working on the music, with all its nuances, with a cast of those who have very different musical abilities,” Wallerstein began. “Some are longtime performers, while some have never sung before but are ‘naturals.’ We’ve tried to create a really positive atmosphere and I feel we’ve succeeded. We’re taking basically an opera that has very, very many recorded variations that tells the story of a people’s movement, the musical story of rebellion in a community fighting oppression. It’s filled with humor, drama and passion and, at the same time, it’s a love story.”
She added that “Les Miserables” appeals to all age groups, with character studies involving ages 7 and 8 to those in their 60s and 70s. “The play is definitely multi-generational,” she said.
Wallerstein said theatergoers will be amazed at the “stunning costumes,” which were designed by Terri Thomas, along with the myriad other aspects of the production. “It’s also very well choreographed, and we made use of the fairgrounds’ Organ Room and other areas for extra dressing rooms to support the cast.”
In addition to Wallerstein and Wolfe, “Les Miserables” is brought to Placerville with the work of lighting designer David Patrick, producer Lanny Langston, costume designer Terri Thomas, music director and conductor Dr. Jeff Nelson, drama and movement coach Chrissie Addison and stage manager Dan Snow.
Local residents who will enjoy the holiday season production of “Les Miserables” may also thank several sponsors, including Joyce Amlick, El Dorado Disposal and the El Dorado Arts Council.
“Les Miserables” has been seen by 60 million people in 40 countries. Find out why, Nov. 29-Dec. 29. For more information and performance times visit imagination theater online at imaginationtheater.net or call (530) 642-0404.