Jean Valjean has spent 19 years in a French prison – for stealing a loaf of bread, plus additional time for attempting to escape.
Although the lead character in “Les Misérables” is being released, his future looks bleak. He does not celebrate his return to freedom, instead lamenting how he has been “a slave of the law.” A chorus of shackled convicts tells him he always will be a slave.
As the person portraying Valjean for Area Community Theater of Sharpsville, Justin Ray must convey the emotion of the situation not just by how he looks, but in how he sings.
At a February rehearsal for “Les Misérables,” which is running three weekends starting Friday in Pierce Opera House, Sharpsville, Ray sings the words “a slave” off the beat, emphasizing the word “slave.” That’s not the way the music was written, but he says he thinks that representation is “more lyrical.”
Jon Simsic, the show’s music director, corrects him, asking him to sing it on the beat, putting the stress on the “a” before “slave.”
Doesn’t it make more sense to sing it off the beat?, asks Ray.
“It does, but I didn’t write it,” Simsic answers from his seat at the Baldwin piano.
“Do your best to do what the score says,” Simsic instructs. “We might not like it, but we have to stick with it.”
Ray adopts Simsic’s instruction and comes to trust Simsic’s instincts. Simsic has staged “Les Mis” before, with Salem (Ohio) Community Theatre, and also has been involved with opera and theater productions with Valley Lyric Opera and Youngstown State University.
“Jon has great perception about what the character is going through,” said Ray, of South Pymatuning Township. “It makes more sense.”
At this point, Simsic had been working with the singers for several weeks. This day, he has Ray and Tom Perman, who plays Valjean’s pursuer, Inspector Javert, around the piano to make sure they have some of the trickier passages down. Later in the rehearsal, they will be on stage with director Don Struck to work on blocking, their positions on stage during the show.
“I’m a big believer that you don’t belong on stage until you know the music,” said Simsic, full-time organist and choirmaster with a church in Canton, Ohio, where he lives.
Perman, of Hermitage, knows the music, but his head is nodding to the beat as he sings. Simsic asks him to work on keeping the beat inside his head, with no outward signs of counting.
“I know,” Perman says. “My hat’s going to fall off.”
Simsic also works with Ray and Perman on the dramatic presentation of the notes.
“You can’t superimpose drama,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that music and drama are not two separate things. It has to be a synthesis.”
Ray and Perman are to the point of singing large sections without looking at their scores. They face each other or an imaginary audience, depending on how the scene is to progress.
“So, guys, it’s better, it’s better,” Simsic said. “You just have to watch these couple spots.”
Simsic calls over Ally Grande. At 9, the Sharon girl does not have the background of Perman or Ray, but she’s got pipes. She plays Young Cossette and gets a song to sing by herself, “Castle on a Cloud.”
Ally sings it and Simsic is happy with the musical portion of it, but she’s a long way from dramatizing the song, he says.
He tries to help Ally put herself into the song by telling her that Cossette is melancholy – then has to define the term for her – but that she is thinking happy thoughts.
“You have to show something on your face or it will appear robotic,” he says.
When Simsic is finished, Struck walks Ally onto the stage and backstage to show her where she will be coming from when she enters the stage, and where she will be moving to once she’s on it. With 43 cast members, coordinating the moving on and off stage is a major undertaking, and he wants his young singer to get extra attention.
Simsic calls Ally back to work on her part in another song, and Struck walks over to Ally’s mother, Kirsten Grande.
“She’s looking at me like ‘Huh?’ because we’re presenting her with a lot of information,” says Struck. “I’ll go through it a couple of times with her so she knows what’s going on.”
With six weeks to go before opening night, there’s a lot going on. Some set pieces have been completed, but others have yet to be born. The rail for the orchestra pit has been built, but the panels haven’t been bolted together, and Struck inadvertently knocks one over.
Power tools, paint cans and boxes of screws are pushed under a riser.
• • •
It’s been about four years since Shenango Valley Chorale members Perman and Susan Piccirilli turned years of talk about the area needing a theater group into an actual organization, nicknamed ACTS.
The reopening of the Pierce Opera House in the borough gave them a place to turn the talk into reality.
ACTS debuted with a drama, Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” in November 2010. While ACTS continues to stage dramas – “So far, we’ve not lost money on a show,” Piccirilli said – musicals, including “The Pirates of Penzance” and its last one, “South Pacific,” a year ago, have fueled the company’s growth.
After packing the Pierce with delighted “South Pacific” fans, they have upped the ante with “Les Mis.”
“This is the biggest thing we’ve ever attempted,” Piccirilli said, adding, “It’s the most exciting thing we’ve ever done.”
“Les Mis” includes the large cast, a 12-piece orchestra and a $30,000 budget to bring off nine performances. “South Pacific” ran for five shows.
While “Les Mis” is a big step for the small-town group, the choice was natural for ACTS, for artistic and other reasons.
“Some of the folks involved with our group love this show,” said Piccirilli, of Sharpsville. “We had so many people we know wanted to do this show.”
Just the opportunity to participate excited the theater community, and 78 people auditioned for roles.
Wendy Wygant, who plays the adult Cossette, had never worked with ACTS before, but wanted to do “Les Mis.”
“It’s my favorite musical,” said Wygant, of Hermitage, who studied theater at Kent State University.
“The story is as good as the music,” she said, calling the story “deeply emotional.”
“Honestly, every time I sing these songs I cry,” she said.
Outside of the organization, “Les Mis” has generated an equally important buzz. ACTS started selling tickets weeks in advance, and presales are well ahead of previous shows, Perman said.
“We’re hoping that people will come the first weekend and are going to want to come back that third weekend,” Piccirilli said.
Corporate sponsors, most notably PNC Bank and Merrill Lynch, also have come through. With presales and sponsorships, ACTS has already collected half of the show’s budget, Piccirilli said.
While the four years have been “a good ride,” as Perman put it, ACTS has also reached a plateau as far as growth. It remains an all-volunteer organization, and to do more than it already does would require paid positions, Perman said.
“We manage it the way we can manage it, but not beyond that,” Perman said.
The opera house also limits ACTS somewhat in that the theater space is on the second floor and there is no elevator to that floor. The steps up to the second floor are steep and keep many would-be patrons from seeing shows.
Organizers try to compensate for the access barriers with a high-definition video feed to the Shenango Valley Ballet studio on the first floor. That service will be offered at the three Saturday shows of ‘Les Mis.”
While “Les Mis” is attracting people who have never come before to ACTS productions, the group has a loyal core that attends whatever show the company puts on.
“It’s an amazing response from the public to support that,” Perman said. “It seems this is what people like. I personally love giving the community a chance to do something they otherwise would have to drive a fair distance from the Shenango Valley.”
• • •
Watching her daughter during rehearsal, Kirsten Grande said she is amazed at the giant leap the little girl has made.
Ally has little formal training. She has sung with the Shenango Area Youth Chorus for a couple of years, taken piano lessons for two years with Nancy Calior and participated in workshops put on by Easy Street Productions of Youngstown.
But, those activities have not prepared Mrs. Grande for seeing her daughter singing a solo on stage in a musical, and working with adults, some of whom have years of experience.
“It’s very weird to go from nothing to this,” Mrs. Grande said. “She would sing around the house. But us, her parents, with no ear, we didn’t realize what she could do.”
Of course, Ally doesn’t see things as strange. The Case Avenue Elementary School fourth-grader had seen “The Lion King” and “Wicked” live, and “Wicked” put a magical thought into her head.
“I did want to be in a Broadway show and learn to sing like that – not be a witch, though,” Ally said.
Ally has worked with vocal coach Ellen Reed, who recommended that she try out for the show and mentored her through the audition process, said Ally’s father, David Grande.
“I’m thankful to Mrs. Reed,” Ally said. “She taught me how to sing.”
Ally did not know “Les Mis” before she started working with Reed. She has since tried to watch the movie version, but only made it half way through.
“I started to cry so I shut it off,” she said, calling it “too sad.”
She has had no such reaction playing a role in the stage version, even though her character is tortured.
“I like how it teaches people a lesson,” she said, about how people of all levels of social standing deserve respect.
Ally said she has only a few butterflies at the thought of singing on a big stage before a packed house.
“A lot of my friends said they do want to come see it, and my teacher,” she said.
Working with adults has been no big deal, either, Ally said.
“It’s fun. They make me laugh, sometimes. I like when we sing the ensemble parts. I like just hanging out with the people.”
• • •
Justin Ray is someone Ally could learn a lot from.
He understands what ACTS has at stake, and has taken his preparation for the role no less seriously.
“I’m proud and honored to be part of this production in every way,” Ray said. “When I left years ago, there were no theater outlets in this area.”
The 1996 Sharpsville High School graduate has worked for regional theater companies around the country, and lived for 11 years in Los Angeles when he worked for Paramount Show Services, visiting 27 countries in various productions.
Tired of the uncertainty of a theater career – going from audition to audition and not knowing when he would next work – Ray moved back home and pursues theater as a part-time endeavor.
“I get more enjoyment out of doing this as a hobby than I do doing it as a day job,” he said.
ACTS runs smoothly top to bottom, and is ready to take on “Les Mis,” said Ray, who has worked on- and off-stage for the company.
“‘Les Mis’ is one of the hardest musicals ever written,” he said, referring to the three-hour length, complexity of the rhythms and orchestration, the emotional depth of the characters and the vocal range demands on the singers.
“To put it in a smaller venue with this level of professionalism is commendable,” he said.
Accordingly, Valjean is “one of the most coveted roles in musical theater,” Ray said.
Working since Thanksgiving on the role, Ray said he will be ready when the curtain opens each night.
“The trick to doing it nine times, it comes down to healthy living,” Ray said. “You can’t be out doing stupid things like partying and do a show like this.”
“Les Misérables” will run at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and March 21, 22, 28 and 29, and 2 p.m. Sunday and March 23 and 30. Reserve tickets by calling 724-815-4388, or buy them at Muscarella’s Cafe Italia, Sharpsville, or online at www.actsharpsville.org Pierce Opera House is at 100 N. Mercer Ave.