What: Stage musical
Where: Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St., Hawks Mainstage
When: Friday through Oct. 27; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $40 adults, $24 students. No discounts available.
Information: 402-553-0800 or omahaplayhouse.com
* * *
One day more.
Almost since the moment the Omaha Community Playhouse announced last January that it would stage the epic “Les Misérables,” the show's creative team has been working on the daunting challenges of this big-cast, big-sound, big-story musical about romance, revolution and redemption.
Counting down to Friday's opening night audience, director Susan Baer Collins and the show's designers can't quantify all the magic needed to make a show a hit. But in some ways, the preparation can be told in sheer numbers — 250-plus costumes, 300 lighting cues, 18 locations for which scenery had to be built.
The Playhouse said from the outset that the blockbuster musical would be the most expensive show in its history, and it is — double the cost of the typical mainstage season opener. The Playhouse declined to provide exact costs but said the total would be in the six figures.
For Collins, assistant director Carl Beck and music director Jim Boggess, it began with a record-setting 350 auditioners last March, followed by an unprecedented 10 weeks of rehearsing the all-singing show. Typical musicals see 60 to 100 auditioners and get seven weeks of preparation.
Susan Baer Collins, director of the show
Even the roles themselves pose huge challenges, which led to hiring New York professional Timothy Shew to play the lead character, Jean Valjean. The part requires not only great acting but a singing range of more than two octaves, which precious few men can handle with confidence. Shew has played Valjean hundreds of times on Broadway.
Design work got underway in earnest in June, before “The Wizard of Oz” closed last season.
Scenic designer Jim Othuse, who has done more than 100 musicals at the Playhouse, said “Les Misérables” ranks among his most daunting design challenges. The sprawling story set in 19th century France fills nearly two decades, taking us to such varied sites as the galley of a ship, a bishop's home, a courtroom, a hospital, a country inn and the sewers of Paris.
Othuse met the challenge by installing a turntable at center stage, 24 feet in diameter. A raised floor was built over the entire stage area and into the wings to surround the turntable, along with two multilevel structures that flank it on either side. The turntable, he said, is a great way to convey a journey, crucial to the story, as well as to change locations quickly or get furniture on and off.
Painted backdrops and three-dimensional scenery pieces fill the space above the stage, waiting to be raised and lowered on cue. In the wings, a street barricade 24 feet long, a large wrought-iron garden gate and a freight cart wait to roll on and off.
Most in the cast of 33 play multiple roles: soldiers, prisoners, rebels, prostitutes, wedding guests, factory workers, street people, revelers at a country tavern. That means multiple costumes for each actor, and many quick changes, adding to design challenges. Volunteer dressers (five each performance) will help actors in and out of clothes and wigs backstage. Some actors have a dozen costume changes during each performance.
Jim Othuse scenic and lighting designer
Because the show takes place in 1815-32 France, an unusual time and place, costume shop foreman Paula Clowers said fewer costumes than usual came from the Playhouse's inventory of outfits created for past shows.
Whether from storage or created from scratch, veteran costume designer Georgiann Regan said, costumes needed extensive detailing and alterations. And in this story about the plight of the poor, most duds can't look brand new, she said. Staffers “distressed” the costumes to give them the appearance of wear and aging, using dye-infused oversize crayons, spray-on dyes, bleach and even a sander.
Georgiann Regan and Paula Clowers Playhouse costume shop
Props designer Darin Kuehler, meanwhile, needed 14 period rifles for rebels and soldiers to shoot at each other. Retail cost: about $350 each. Kuehler created them from scratch for about $30 each, using fiber board, electrical conduit, moldable resin and paint. The guns even flash at the end of the barrel when fired. Four people each night will keep track of props, which include everything from tables and chairs to dishes, cutlery, wine bottles and a pair of silver candlesticks.
Darin Kuehler, playhouse prop master
Playhouse sound designer Tim Burkhart, who's been there 25 years, said “Les Misérables” has the most extensive and complex sound design in memory. That's partly because the show is all sung, and partly because more players than usual sing featured solos.
Body microphones on soloists, area microphones for the chorus and sound effects recorded by staffer John Gibilisco all have to be turned on and off at just the right moment. Volunteers operating the digitally programmed sound console average a cue about every 30 or 40 seconds, Burkhart said.
Dozens of volunteer crew members take turns each night manning the light and sound boards, aiming follow spots, taking care of props, moving scenery and backdrops, running the turntable, helping with quick changes, stage managing and more.
The last records waiting to be broken may come from the box office, which has had strong advance ticket sales. Anticipating that, the Playhouse scheduled 28 performances over six weeks, five more than usual. That means 2,500 extra seats could potentially be filled before the last curtain comes down Oct. 27. Opening weekend is all but sold out.
“We couldn't be happier than we are right now with preparations and the rehearsal process,” Collins said a full week before the first preview. “It's such a familiar show, seen by so many people elsewhere. So it's hard to recall this level of anticipation and expectation from our audience. But I don't think they'll go away disappointed.”