Dozens of students bustled through the Essex High School auditorium with purpose on Monday, strapping on costumes and breaking into vocal warm-up drills as they straightened hairpieces and located new props before beginning their first dress rehearsal.
Including cast, crew and orchestra pit members, the production has a whopping 76 participants — more than any sport in the district, director Aly Perry noted.
The voice acrobatics, including buzzed lips, tongue twisters and soaring scales, were an especially vital part of the day’s preparation. By week’s end, the students will take on the epic French musical “Les Misérables.” The emotionally charged show is completely sung-through — providing no pauses for spoken dialogue — and clocks in at an impressive two and half hours.
Student Tommy Bergeron sang in many musicals before, but decided to enroll in voice lessons after he landed the leading role of Jean Valjean, a Frenchman who breaks parole in search of a new life after serving nearly two decades in jail for stealing a loaf of bread.
“The show is very classically sung and it is demanding,” Bergeron said, listing the characters he’s required to physically lift during the show. “On top of that, I’m also belting high A’s and singing non-stop … It’s daunting if you think about it too much, so I try not to think about it too much and just do it.”
Setting fears about the vocal demands aside, Bergeron said he was immediately excited to see how Perry would put her spin on the well-known show. The resulting rendition is somewhat modernized, bucking the traditional 19th century costumes and set pieces while keeping the core messages intact.
“The question we started with was why do people come to theater and what makes a classic like Les Mis timely?” Perry said. “Its timelessness is in the fact that it’s still socially relevant.”
Perry, who became the EHS director just two years ago, said the perspective proves the themes in the show are still universal and makes it easier for actors and audience members alike to apply the show’s message to their own lives.
“What we want is for people to come in and see themselves and their world on stage,” Perry said. “It’s really easy to look at poverty in the 1800s and think of it as something from a bygone era, but poverty is still among us and injustice is still among us.”
Sosenna Palmer plays Cosette, the daughter of an impoverished woman who is sent to live with a pair of innkeepers with questionable morals and is later adopted by Valjean. In most productions, Palmer said Cosette is portrayed as relatively weak and dependent on men.
“We wanted her to have a story and have thoughts and have intentions and motivations,” Palmer said. “We worked on making her a little more grounded and a little more real so people could see themselves in her.”
Jaylin Rae applied the same approach to her character Fantine, Cosette’s mother, who turns to prostitution to provide for her daughter. Doubly challenging was navigating the adult themes — sexual assault, bloody warfare and an abusive prison system to name a few.
“A lot of students struggle with the characters being so far removed from their experience,” Perry said. “More years pass in this play than the students have lived.”
With that in mind, Perry asked the cast members to read the novel by Victor Hugo over the summer, encouraging them to suss out the meaning of the words they would later sing up on stage.
Perry elected to move forward with the show largely uncensored. Several students said addressing those thorny topics head-on felt timely and cathartic. One major modification removed all guns from the show, props usually integral to the rebellion woven through the story.
“It’s highly theatricalized, intentionally theatricalized,” Perry explained. “I think having guns on stage in a school production is problematic, and yet, how can you do Les Mis without having a war happen in front of you? In some ways, the problems are also an opportunity.”
The students stayed tight-lipped about their take on the barricade, a central set piece that serves as the base of the revolution, but promised attendees would be pleasantly surprised.
“It’s very unique and it’s aesthetically pleasing,” Bergeron said. “You’re on a 100 mile-per-hour train bolting to the finish.”
Les Miserables plays on November 16, 17 and 18 at 7 p.m. and on November 18 at 1 p.m. at Essex High School.
Tickets are available in person during lunch time at EHS, at the door and at https://ehslesmis.brownpapertickets.com.
Student and senior tickets are $5 and general admission is $8.