21 Jun ASPEN DAILY NEWS: Epic in the Tent
When Theatre Aspen announced last fall that it would be staging the beloved Broadway spectacle “Les Miserables” in the cozy confines of its 200-seat riverside tent, the response was a collective “Wow.”
That was quickly followed by a more practical question: “How?”
Asked just that in November, Theatre Aspen creative director Paige Price said, “I don’t know, but it will be fun to try!”
The company, celebrating its 30th anniversary, has figured it out in the months since and “Les Miserables” begins it summer-long run this week at the Hurst Theatre in Rio Grande Park.
On Broadway, the runaway hit included a cast of hundreds, massive sets capturing 19th century Paris and an Eiffel Tower. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, it follows the unjustly jailed Jean Valjean on a journey of redemption from prison to the Paris student uprising of 1832, among the nation’s dispossessed.
For the Aspen production, director Mark Martino sought to use the small tent theater as an advantage.
“What excited me was presenting the story in a much more intimate setting,” says Martino. “We can’t create the spectacle. We want to create a personal, moving story about these people’s life and death struggles.”
The production aims to use the tight quarters of the Hurst to create the kind of emotional intensity seen in last year’s Oscar-winning “Les Mis” film, where close-ups added an immediacy that was unattainable in huge Broadway shows.
“It plays out right in front of you,” adds Martino, a New York-based director who has worked on Theatre Aspen shows since 2008. “That’s what drew me to it.”
They’ve swapped the massive revolving sets of the Broadway productions for an atmospheric one — making the streets of Paris from innovative lighting, evolving backdrops, and by using the whole theater thrust-style, rows and all.
The cast size and scale of production are still huge for Theatre Aspen, with 90 different costumes, 27 wigs, 20 moving lights and 23 actors transforming into 70 different characters.
The Broadway smash hit and its music have become an inescapable cultural touchstone, running from 1987 through 2003 and again during a revival from 2006 to 2008, totaling more than 7,000 performances. It’s set for a return to Broadway next year. The musical’s pop-opera songs and ballads — “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Suddenly,” “Master of the House,” “On My Own” — are timeless. Whether or not you’re a Broadway fan, you know these songs from cultural osmosis.
Playing Jean Valjean is the charismatic tenor Mike Eldred, reprising his role from the Broadway revival.
“He’s an incredibly sympathetic Jean Valjean,” Martino says.
He leads a cast that includes what Martino calls “some of the greatest adult voices I’ve ever heard.” Along with Broadway actors like Eldred, it includes six local children and six local theater vets like Franz Alderfer and Nikki Boxer. Beth Malone, Broadway vet and Snowmass local, plays Fantine, the orphan, mother and prostitute played by Anne Hathaway in an Oscar-winning performance in last year’s film.
“There’s no one better to tap into that role,” Martino says of Malone. “For starters, she weighs two pounds and I can believe that people hurt her.”
Malone’s turn as Fantine, Martino adds, also has a well-rounded integrity that other actors in the role sometimes trade for a more one-dimensional “woe-is-me” take on the character.
Theatre Aspen auditioned more than 700 actors for the production, searching for performers who could bring an intimacy to their roles in the tent. Martino says he looked for actors who could move him in the space of small audition rooms.
Coming in at about 2 hours and 40 minutes with an intermission, the Theatre Aspen rendition of “Les Miserables” is a half hour shorter than the Broadway show while trimming very little music; the length has been shortened mostly because the tent version doesn’t need massive set changes.
A week before opening night in the tent, the seats were peppered with men on laptops — sound and lighting technicians, set designers, stage managers — perfecting the finer points of the production.
While the tech crew worked out the kinks of Act One, Eldred, scruffy faced with a red bandana holding back stringy hair, sung through bits of songs in stutter-step and sweated in the midday heat of the tent and stage lights.
“I can’t wait to lose 20 pounds,” he quipped during one break for technical adjustments.
“July in a tent, baby!” Martino shot back with a laugh from the darkened seats, eyeing his culminating production.
Before moving into the tent, the cast rehearsed for two and a half weeks on a set built in the Dance Progressions studio at the Aspen Airport Business Center.
The musical opens Tuesday, June 25 with preview performances this Friday, Saturday and Monday. It runs through Aug. 17.
Theatre Aspen’s staging of the internationally acclaimed epic is the centerpiece of its 30th anniversary season. The theater company’s summer season also includes “Fully Committed,” a comedy with one actor playing 40 parts, that opens July 5, and the kid-friendly classic “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” opening July 11.