Les Miserables is an epic and uplifting story about the survival of the human spirit. The true modern classic is based on the novel by French poet and playwright Victor Hugo and has one of the most memorable scores of all time. The sung-through pop opera version was a spectacle on Broadway and London in 1985 and still continues to be a hit.
Set in early 19th century France, the plot follows the stories of many characters as they struggle through revolution and redemption; appropriate for 21st century Brampton, especially after this municipal election.
In 1989, Les Mis landed in Toronto, where I was fortunate to experience it from the 6th row, with Michael Burgess as Jean Valjean. It took me over 20 minutes after the final curtain to compose myself enough to vacate the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Even 25 years later, the memory of that performance still haunts me.
As I walked into Brampton Music Theatre’s rehearsal during Master of the House, the spirit of the music took over all my senses and instantly made me a part of the production, as audience. From the first note, it is a score that takes hostage of your emotions and never lets you go.
It is this same reason that makes Les Miserables equally effective with a minimum set; it is the spirit of the production that transcends to community theatre, and this is why Brampton Music Theatre is bringing Les Mis to Brampton.
During rehearsal, a stage hand approaches, “You have to imagine, a cart has fallen on this peasant, and Valjean is using his incredible strength to lift it …” and, as quickly as I enthusiastically say, “I know,” the stage hand continues, “I love this play. Did you see it when it was in Toronto recently? I saw it decades ago, and took my daughter who was 6 years old then. When I told her BMT purchased the rights last year, she said, ‘I’m there!’”
That stage hand is none other than BMT’s Stage Manager, Randy Freer and his daughter Rachel is Assistant Stage Manager. I realize we were at the same production of Les Miserables 25 years ago, coincidentally, around the same time that Randy, as well as most of those involved with BMT, joined Brampton’s community musical theatre program.
THIS is the power of live theatre. As Randy is directing stage hands, helping move props and assisting cast members, he too finds himself getting lost in the play, and quickly has to discipline himself as there is still much work to be done before the curtain rises on opening night, November 6th.
“There are so many things to grab from the show,” begins Joseph Gomes who plays Monsieur Thénardier, the secondary antagonist, a criminal who provides much needed comic relief. “The music is the story; man’s struggle ends in justice. That’s what we all want.” as Joseph compares how pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong used music from Les Mis as their battle cry. “Though a tad melodramatic, there is something stirring and powerful in the human need to have something better. Tomorrow, the sun shall rise; there’s always hope that there are pastoral dreams out there, allowing you to fight the barricades, and beyond.”
Joseph Gomes has been a staple in Brampton community theatre since 1982 when he performed with Bramalea Little Theatre. In 1993 he was celebrated as Brampton’s Art Person of the Year and, just last year, he was honoured as Best Director for BMT’s production of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. I regret that I was not living in Brampton then as I would have loved to see that show.
No matter what role you play, whether backstage, on stage or in the audience, live theatre is an experience that clamps onto your heart and shadows your soul as its spirit possesses you, forever. Joseph cites his own experience of seeing Les Mis that first time in Toronto, “At intermission, I was busting in two, and couldn’t wait to return for Act Two.”
Many may assume the cast of over 60 adults and 3 child actors, 70% being from Brampton, are amateurs coming together for a little fun. “We are amateurs in the fact that we don’t get paid, …” says Joseph, “… but we are professional amateurs because we do this from the love in our hearts. And that’s another thing; if you don’t have that passion in you to take it to the stage, then you can’t sell the story.”
Joseph affirms BMT is doing a great job. “We have a terrific orchestra, terrific set design, terrific musical director and a terrific cast, myself not included,” he says with a chuckle.
This production of Les Miserables blurs the line between Broadway and Community theatres; for a theatre brat such as me, what I experienced in just a few scenes during a BMT rehearsal equals everything I’ve ever seen performed by professional ensembles.
Get out there and support your community theatre. “It costs $35 a person, but you will get double that and much more in return!” Joseph says in character, as Monsieur Thénardier. If anyone knows a steal of a deal, it is he.
Ladies, skip the mascara. And bring tissues; lots and lots of tissues.