If 50 people tell me a movie is fantastic, I can't wait to have a dissenting opinion. I sit in the dark, arms crossed, demanding to be proven wrong. Around 1987, it seemed as if everyone I knew was telling me "Les Miserables" was the greatest show ever. Three years later, I relented and went to see it. I assumed it would be a snooty, melodramatic musical. Not only did I love it, but I went back two more times, bought the soundtrack, and to this day, I stop on PBS whenever one of the concert versions is on.
The Maui Academy of Performing Arts is taking on this massive musical behemoth starting tomorrow night. No expense has been spared, and the budget is not that far from the original 1986 Broadway production. The orchestra, with 29 members, is just as large as the largest on Broadway. The aspirations for MAPA are equal to, but different from a full-fledged Broadway tour. I met with director, David Johnston, and choreographer, Andre Morissette, last week and discussed what Morissette calls "a monster" of a show. The two have made "Les Miserables" a collaboration, as if co-directed.
"I read Boulil and Schonberg's book, and Trevor Nunn (the original director) says you need two directors for this show," said Johnston. "You can't do it without some help, and it has been effortless and egoless."
Leighanna Locke stars as Fantine in “Les Miserables.” The Maui Academy of Arts production opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater.
JACK GRACE photo
Morissette added, "When David approached me I said, 'I don't remember any choreography in Les Mis,' but he explained his vision - the whole show is choreography."
"It was also nice to have a token Frenchman around to correct pronunciations," joked Johnston.
I inquired if they had discovered anything new about "Les Mis" along the way.
" 'What do you see?' was the first thing I asked David," said Morissette.
"We would play with a set," added Johnston, "but that would always lead us to a better way. We were never afraid to try something or change something."
"Many of the changes became less is more, the idea was to simplify," said Morissette. "We let the work talk to us. It's delightful to me as an artist to collaborate in this manner, not just the two of us, but the cast and the musicians too."
"It doesn't matter whose idea it was. I'm not even sure I know who came up with what. It's a very organic way for the work to create itself," said Johnston.
From the first French silent film version in 1897, to last year's Oscar winner, "Les Mis" has had more than 80 incarnations over the years. Dozens of countries have produced their own versions of the classic Victor Hugo tale for film, stage, television and even an Orson Welles radio play.
"We want this Maui production to be familiar, but unique," said Johnston.
Unique it will be, with 60 Maui actors on stage (plus another 25 singers in the pit, Morissette is essential in choreographing the movement of all those performers and the scene changes. Stage versions of "Les Mis" require a cast of 15 to 25 actors.
"I have to admit that a few times, I said to myself, you know, this would be a lot easier with 15 people," Johnston joked. Cast members include James Price (a tenor who spent eight seasons with Hawaii Opera Theatre) as Jean Valjean, Jerry Eiting as Javert, Leighanna Locke as Fantine, Lia Krieg as Eponine, Dylan Bode as Marius, Ashley Pokorski as young Cosette, Jacqui Sherwood as older Cosette, Kepa Cabanilla-Aricayos as Enjolras, and Kristi Scott and Dale Button as the Thenardiers.
So why do even the most seasoned cynics love "Les Mis?"
Morissette offered, "Hugo portrayed the human condition so brilliantly. We all go through these things, we all have a Fantine moment in our lives, but late in the show it becomes a love story."
"It cuts through cynicism," added Johnston. "This is not a fantasy world. Despite hardship, the failed revolution - there is an affirmation. 'Tomorrow comes,' not will come - it's not a dream."
Johnston quoted his favorite line in the show, "To love another person is to see the face of God."
Hugo's story relies upon people helping others who have no hope, people that offer love and forgiveness expecting nothing in return.
"The key for me is the scene with the Bishop," said Johnston. "The Bishop recognizes something in Valjean that no one else can. He sees that Valjean has something to offer, he is a gift to the world. It's the trigger for the entire show."
I inquired if there is a true protagonist or antagonist in the story.
"To Javert, there is right and wrong. He's not a malicious character. There are laws and consequences to him. It's tragic when his belief system is shattered," said Johnston.
Morissette added, "Valjean can transform, he can grow and change, Javert cannot. It's not right and wrong - it's a difference of opinion."
* MAPA presents "Les Miserables," with music by Claude-Michael Schonberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boulil and Jean-Marc Natel, with English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer and based on the novel by Victor Hugo. The MAPA production, directed by David C. Johnston, choreographed by Andre Morissette and under the musical direction of Robert E. Wills, opens on Friday and runs through Aug. 25. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater. On Sunday, audience members are invited to stay for "AfterWords," a talk-back with members of the artistic team and cast immediately following the matinee. Tickets range from $15 to $65 (plus applicable fees). To purchase tickets for any MACC event, visit the box office, call 242-7469 or order online at www.mauiarts.org. For more information about the production, visit www.mauiacademy.org.
Celebrate with MAPA at the Garden Party's Silver Anniversary on the shady lawn of the Yokouchi Family Estate in Wailuku from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8. Enjoy Broadway-caliber entertainment, a chef's festival with gourmet cuisine from Maui restaurants, fine wines, locally brewed beer, live jazz, a silent auction and Fresh Art, on site created art to be auctioned off at the live auction. Proceeds benefit MAPA's educational performing arts programs. Tickets are $75 in advance or $85 the day of the event. The Garden Party is a 21 and older event. For tickets, call MAPA at 244-8760.
OnSTAGE, a new youth theater program for ages 9 to 13, starts at 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, with a meet-and-greet session at the Historic Iao Theater. Students enrolled in the OnSTAGE workshop will attend rehearsals for the musical "The Story of Orange" by Vernise Pelzel, to be held 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays; and 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Performances of "The Story of Orange," directed by Ricky Jones, will be performed the first two weekends in December. Tuition for this 12-week workshop is $175. For more information or to register, call 244-8680 or visit www.mauionstage.com.
Camp CenterStage, founded by Alexis and Steven Dascoulias, announces CCS Maui. Registration has begun for this seven-day camp for ages 10 through 17. The performing arts camp will run during Hawaii's intersession, Saturday, Oct. 5, through Friday, Oct. 11 at Camp Maluhia. The program offers campers the opportunity to learn life skills through a variety of arts and activities including acting, music, dance, creative writing, water sports and more. Tuition is $650, which includes all meals and housing. The week concludes with a final showcase for parents, friends and family. For more information, visit www.campcenterstage.org.