There's a thrilling story, and songs that can make a stone cry. There's the blazing heat of love, danger and revolution. And enveloping it all is the pure magic of theater passionately staged.
The enormously popular musical "Les Miserables" entertains on a multitude of levels and who sitting in a theater seat for well over two hours could find fault with that? But given the entertaining aspects of the musical, based on Victor Hugo's masterpiece of the same name, does the stage work's underlying story of human misery and desperation shrink to insignificance as audiences lose themselves to the magic?
Cheryl Goodman-Morris of the Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory hopes that won't happen when she and a cast of 45 stage "Les Miserables" -- or "Les Mis" -- from March 11 to 22. One way she's aiming to keep the message of humankind's need for compassion and love at center stage is by setting the piece in modern times rather than in the musical's original time frame of 1815-1832.
"The idea is that 'Les Mis' is a story for all times -- that there are poor and oppressed in every age who need to be heard, our present day included," Ms. Goodman-Morris says. "This is our story."
Although the sets and costumes will be contemporary, there will be no changes in the music or script. Rather than settling into 19th century Paris, it will be up to audience members to determine where the action is taking place.
Ms. Goodman-Morris, who with her husband, Mark Goodman-Morris, is a co-pastor of Valley Presbyterian Church in Portola Valley, founded the community theater company in 1993. She serves as artistic director, and has directed many productions, including her own musical, "Puah's Midwife Crisis."
"Les Mis" is a huge undertaking for a small theater company, and Ms. Goodman-Morris was aware of that going in. When she first began toying with the idea, she sought input from theater-world friends. One friend who had directed "Les Mis" warned her that the effort would "tax every resource, and then some," Ms. Goodman-Morris said in an interview with the Almanac.
Since she began working on putting it all together early last summer, she says, the effort "has taken every waking minute." And now heading into the final stretch of rehearsals, she's being fueled by "excitement, passion and adrenaline," she says.
But it was important for her to go all out for this year's PVTC production, she notes. That's because it will be her last. "Mark and I will be retiring the following year after 30 years of ministry and theater in Portola Valley, so I wanted this show to be special," she says in an email.
It is a complicated story that unfolds in "Les Miserables," presenting many challenges to the brave-at-heart who stage the musical. The play's lead character is Jean Valjean, a peasant who has served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for a starving child. Valjean is released at the beginning of the play, but the menacing police inspector Javert hovers over his life. The story of personal struggle, desperation and the quest for redemption is amplified by universal themes of poverty, injustice and revolution. With "Les Mis," Ms. Goodman-Morris will leave PVTC with a bang, not a whimper.
For most of the past productions, Ms. Goodman-Morris has been able to tap enough members of the PVTC and church community to create a solid cast. But with so many of the characters needing strong voices and stage skills, she had to cast a wider net for "Les Mis," she says.
She was thrilled by the response, with many actors and singers auditioning because they knew the show "and loved it -- it's such a magical experience," she says.
A newcomer, Dan Galpin, nabbed the lead role of Jean Valjean. An intense actor with a strong, expressive voice, Mr. Galpin was already in rehearsals for the Lamplighters Music Theatre's production of "Candide" when he auditioned last October, but nevertheless was determined to perform in "Les Mis," Ms. Goodman-Morris says. Mr. Galpin has been enthralled with the musical "since he was the age of 8," she says.
Don Gustafson is Javert, Mark Goodman-Morris is M. Thenardier, and Claire Chiaravalle of Woodside is Mdm. Thenardier.
Matt Waters, a teacher at Woodside Elementary School, is a striking Enjolras, the charismatic leader of a group of student revolutionaries. Menlo Park resident Asher Allen is the boy Gavroche, and Darrell Batchelder of Woodside is the bishop. (His wife, Darlene, has a minor role.)
Other lead actors are Torrey Rothstein as Marius, Jessica Whittemore as Fantine, Aly Casas as Eponine, and Leher Patak as Cosette.
A 17-piece orchestra will perform under the direction of Rafael Ornes.
To say Ms. Goodman-Morris is pleased with the cast would be an understatement. "If you're going to go out with a bang, it's best to have a great cast you can love," she says. "I'm in awe of their gifts."
Ms. Goodman-Morris read the 1,200-plus-page novel by Victor Hugo last year to prepare for directing the musical. "Hugo was a genius, and he had such a grasp of the personal as well as the political," she says.
"He takes this huge, epic adventure and story and (uses it to examine) the plight of the poor," setting that theme against the story of political upheaval, she notes.
Amid rousing musical sections and quieter moments of small-scale action are scenes of exquisite compassion that Ms. Goodman-Morris hopes will convey the message she wants audience members to take away: No matter what our own circumstances are, it is important "to have a heart for those who are suffering."
In an email she wrote after further considering the work's message, she quotes from Hugo's novel: "To love another person is to see the face of God."
Ms. Goodman-Morris says that tickets to "Les Mis" are going fast, but some are still available, particularly for performances on Wednesday and Thursday, March 11 and 12, and Thursday, March 19.
"Les Miserables" runs March 11-22 in the Lane Family Theatre at Valley Presbyterian Church, 945 Portola Road in Portola Valley. Go to pvtc-ca.org for more information. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 851-8282, ext. 105, for tickets.