MERCED — Playhouse Merced opens its 20th season with the blockbuster musical "Les Misérables" this weekend.
"It was just released to community theater groups," said Jim Kocher, who plays Jean Valjean. "So we're excited to be able to bring it to Merced and the Central Valley."
"Les Misérables" is based on Victor Hugo's classic novel about ex-convict Jean Valjean and his attempts to start a new life as he is relentlessly pursued by policeman Javert during the tumult of early 19th century France.
"The novel by Victor Hugo was published in 1862," Kocher said. "The themes of political corruption, societal inequality and moral philosophy are still powerful 150 years later.
"Plus, Jean Valjean's journey is pretty amazing as he tries to be a good person after spending almost 20 years in prison."
Bringing such an epic story to life has Playhouse Merced pulling out all the stops.
"Everything about this show is unique for us," Artistic Director Rob Hypes said. "We are doing things we have never done before at the Playhouse or for a very long time.
"Every aspect of the physical production of the show is something that we are trying out for the first time or something that we have always wanted to do but needed a show like 'Les Misérables' to go for it. The entire thing will be truly stunning," Hypes said.
Costume designer Cindy Strauss first read the story of "Les Misérables" when she was a girl.
"What unfolded was this haunting tale of this man's life," she said. "One small act, for the best of reasons, changes his whole life."
Strauss said she is thrilled to be bringing the story to the stage.
"We have a haunting story with finely crafted characters set in the early 1800s in an almost operalike setting," Strauss said. "The sheer numbers of cast, 42 I believe to be the count, adds its own challenges to the mix."
She said the costume resources, the needs of the play and members of the cast inspired her to draft a plan for taking "Les Misérables" where she wants it to go.
"All of those elements draw me in like a moth to the flame," Strauss said.
She works feverishly hunting down and creating the costumes. But it isn't until the performer steps onstage that everything comes together.
"When a costume I struggled with, as in this case the right coat for Javert, comes together as his did, and I see it onstage on the actor, alive as the character, it is amazing," Strauss said.
"When the production becomes a village, and this one has, it becomes very personal to help them all create a production they love, they can be proud of, and that they will hopefully always remember with a smile," she said.
The same holds true with the audience, Strauss said: "I want to pull them into the story, to suspend their disbelief and take this journey with us."
With songs such as "I Dreamed a Dream," "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and "One Day More," "Les Misérables" could easily become a mere showcase for the 11-piece orchestra and chorus of voices. But Music Director Joel Scott Shade is after more than that.
"Aside from the amazing opportunity to conduct and play the memorable music, I really wanted to make sure that the story and acting came through in our production," Shade said.
Audiences love the melodies in "Les Mis," and it's easy to just produce it as an opera with a lot of very talented people singing very pretty songs, he said. "Though I'm the music director, I approached it as a straight play. I wanted to make sure the acting and the story came first," Shade said.
Playhouse Merced's production is directed by Rob Hypes. Jean Valjean is played by Jim Kocher, and Javert is played by Brad Reed. The cast of more than 40 actors, singers and dancers come from throughout the valley.
"We have been wanting to bring 'Les Misérables' to the Playhouse Merced stage for years," Hypes said. "We are so excited to be able to present this show to Merced and the Central Valley."
To See the Show
"Les Misérables" opens today and plays three weekends through Sept 15: Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p..m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $22 for adults, $20 for seniors, $12 for students and $10 for children.
Buy tickets at (209) 725-8587, or go to the box office at 452 W. Main St. in downtown Merced, Tuesday through Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m.
Show is rated T = Teens 13 and older for mature subject matter, situations and violence.