Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

October 22, 2013

A rare thrill in 'Les Mis'

Blockbuster musical is ACT's biggest production to date

By Judy Wakefield
jwakefield@andovertownsman.com

---- — Some call it the holy grail of musical theater.

And 80 cast members with ACT Theater Company are thrilled at the chance to bring it to the stage starting this weekend.

After months of intense rehearsals, the local nonprofit troupe opens the curtain on “Les Miserables” at the J. Everett Collins Center for three performances this weekend.

“There’s a buzz about this show,” said Cara Kennedy, a teacher at the Pike School in Andover who is in the cast. “It’s a blockbuster.”

The show could not have been possible until this year. Kennedy said the rights to stage the play were off-limits to adults until now. And only a handful of non-professional adult theater groups in the state were awarded those coveted scripts. ACT — which originally launched as Andover Community Theater — was among the lucky few.

It isn’t the first time Andover has hosted a production of “Les Miserables.” Andover High School staged the story of redemption and love focusing on Jean Valjean in 2002 when the school was allowed the rights.

It was a big show for Andover High at the time, and it led to some great memories for the play’s director, Susan Leland-Smith Choquette, who is now the director of theater arts at Andover High.

“We staged it with a cast of future stars,” Leland-Smith Choquette said.

That high school cast included Catherine Charlebois as Eponine, now on Broadway in “Wicked;” Martin Johnson as Enjolras, front man for Boys Like Girls; Briga Heelan, who was in the ensemble, is now starring in her own sitcom, “Ground Floor,” which premieres next month on TBS; Alex Hanna as Thenardier, who appeared off-Broadway this past spring at Playwrights Horizons after graduating with an advanced theater degree from Juilliard School; Becki Dennis Buchman as Madame Thenardier, who is now an actor and talent professional in the Boston area; and Dale Spollett as Jean Valjean, who is now an actor and musician in Los Angeles.

“A lot of people love ‘Les Miserables.’ It is a challenging, sung-through musical,” Leland-Smith Choquette wrote in an email, adding she can’t wait to see ACT’s rendition, which features a lot of her friends and colleagues, including Eric Pellerin who, English teacher at Andover High, as well as some former students, including Kennedy.

Kennedy, who graduated from Andover High in 2001, remembers the AHS production and recalls dreamily thinking, “If I ever get the chance to be in that show,” she’d jump at the chance. Eleven years later, that chance is now upon her.

Rehearsals started in late July. Featuring a professionally designed set and costumes, a 16-piece orchestra, stirring score and a talented cast, the show is the theater company’s biggest musical undertaking to date.

“We have actors driving to rehearsals from Worcester, Hudson, Portsmouth three nights a week,” Kennedy said. “It’s a big deal.”

Andover High School guidance counselor Sally O’Rourke is among the cast members, along with her young daughter, Deirdre. It’s O’Rourke’s first show in 26 years and she’s excited to share the stage with her daughter.

“I have been singing these songs since I was in high school,” O’Rourke said in an email. “Some of the biggest names in Broadway history have either been in or sung songs from `Les Mis’ on an album.”

O’Rourke said she was covered in goose bumps earlier this week when the orchestra struck its first chords during a dress rehearsal.

“At the end, one of the most poignant lines is, `To love another person is to see the face of God’ and then the chorus comes in,” she said. “A number of us were in tears. It is thrilling to be a part of this cast and production.”

Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, the show follows the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who eventually becomes mayor of a French town. It was made into a movie last year that earned numerous awards, including a Golden Globe for best motion picture and an Academy Award for Anne Hathaway for best supporting actress.

Mark Gracy, ACT’s executive producer who is directing the production, said in a press release that he feels privileged to be working with such an amazing cast on such a famous show.

“It’s rare to meet someone these days who has never heard a song from ‘Les Mis,’ so for me, and most in the cast, to be able to perform this show in its totality is the experience of a lifetime,” he said.

The lead role belongs to Charles Gracy, Mark Gracy’s spouse, who as Jean Valjean finds himself being blamed by one of his factory workers, Fantine, when she is cast into a life of prostitution. Valjean feels responsible and agrees to take care of her illegitimate daughter, Cosette, when Fantine dies. The play follows the pair as Cosette grows up and they become swept up in the political turmoil in France, which culminates in the historic June Rebellion, or Paris Uprising of 1832.

Kennedy said ACT’s mission is to provide quality theater for the Merrimack Valley, at affordable prices.

And she is confident the theater company has nailed it with “Les Miserables.”

What: “Les Miserables” presented by ACT Theater Company

When: Friday and Saturday, Oct. 25 and 26, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 27, 2 p.m.

Where: J. Everett Collins Center at Andover High School, 80 Shawsheen Road

Tickets: $25 premium seating, $20 general admission, discounts available for groups of 20-plus

Information: Visit www.acttheatercompany.com or call 978-276-9568.