Kevin Johnson isn’t easily daunted.
The founder of Arizona Onstage Productions has taken on the task of producing and directing a much-loved and massive musical: “Les Misérables,” based on Victor Hugo’s epic novel about a man who spends his life fleeing the law and seeking redemption in 19th-century France. It opens in previews Friday and plays for two weekends.
“Les Misérables” opened in London in 1985. Since then, it has been translated into 21 languages, packed in audiences, and two years ago was made into a movie. It had a long Broadway run and a few revivals, including one that opened earlier this year. The musical is immensely popular.
Yet AOP will be the first theater company in Southern Arizona to mount the piece (there have been a few student productions here, made with an adapted script and reduced usage fees). And that’s understandable: actors, rights, legal fees associated with staging the piece, orchestra, costumes — it all adds up to a hefty amount of money.
Johnson, convinced he had performers that would do it justice, was willing to spend the money (he pays all his cast and crew members). It helps that he has always been scrappy — he can take a small budget and do wonders with it.
“Whenever there’s a show that I’m fond of that I want to be a part of, and whenever fate has it that I have the cast to pull it off well…” he says, trailing off his sentence.
“Everyone was in the right place at the right time, and I knew if I didn’t do it now, I probably would never do it.”
Johnson, whose theater company usually stages small intimate musicals, fell in love with “Les Miz” when he saw it in London in the mid-1980s, even before it became a Broadway hit.
“I was blown away,” he says of the musical. “I knew at the time that it was a different musical experience.”
Johnson had planned to do a concert version, which would be less expensive to produce because it would be sans sets and costumes. But he quickly changed his mind.
“My cast is so strong I think they would be limited by stepping up to a mic and singing,” he says. “And I like challenges.”
And what challenges: climbing through bins at used-clothing stores looking for costumes; telling a story — in song — that spans decades, and a set that must suggest such disparate scenes as a jail, a warehouse and a massive barricade separating the French revolutionaries from the military.
But he has help. Among them is his choral director, Elliot Jones, whose impressive credentials include a doctorate in choral conducting from the UA and extensive musical theater experience. He is the director of choral activities at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mississippi, and does some reverse snowbirding — he spends his summers in Tucson. The music director, Enrique “Hank” Feldman, has been nominated for a Grammy twice, composed for the cinema and has conducted around the world. If the name is familiar, it may be because he is the former associate director of bands at the UA and a co-founder of the Fostering Arts-Mind Education Foundation.
In addition, Johnson has a cast that has him practically gushing.
“I think it will surprise people that every single person on stage is from Tucson,” says Johnson, who noted auditioners came from around the state, California and even Illinois.
“There’s a perception that Tucson may be thin in its talent pool,” he says. “But there’s a great depth of talent here. Even the musicians from the orchestra — some have played all over the world.”
Meet the Players
Character: Jean Valjean,
a one-time prisoner who broke parole and turned his life around, becoming a wealthy, generous and kind man. His life is spent evading the law and seeking redemption. He adopts Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, when Fantine dies.
- Key to character: Valjean’s morality, his commitment to doing the right thing, and his nurturing character, says Runge.
- How he relates to Valjean: “Being a father of daughters, there’s a natural, protective and nurturing side that relates very well,” Runge says. “The other thing is a sense of doing the right thing; that’s something that’s always been a core part of me.”
- Background: Runge became involved in theater in high school and longed to study it in college. “That was my plan,” he says. “My parents didn’t exactly share that plan.” So he got a Ph.D. in engineering. He continued to dabble in theater while working on his doctorate. He moved to Tucson from the East Coast in 2004 and does business innovation and transformation for Raytheon, but theater is still a big part of his life.
Juan Aguirre, bass
Character: Inspector Javert,
a stickler for a strict interpretation of the law. He spends years pursuing Jean Valjean for his crime of breaking parole.
- Key to character: “I think Javert is an example of how one can be on the right side of the law, yet be wrong,” says Aguirre. “In his mind, (pursuing Valjean) is the right thing to do; he believes he is doing God’s will. … He’s highly ethical; his primary values are truth and justice.”
- How he relates to Javert: “I think we’ve all known people with these traits — impersonal, high-minded, inflexible. I’ve studied them and tried to determine what makes them the way they are. … I’m a perfectionist myself. I direct and coach voice, and that side of me tends to come out. With Javert, it’s taken to an extreme.”
- Background: Aguirre has a vocal performance degree from the UA. He is a bit of a theatrical gypsy: He teaches part time, gives private voice lessons, performs, directs and does voice-over work, which allows him to work from his home studio. “I joke that I refuse to get a real job,” he says.
Character: Fantine, mother to Cosette. After losing her factory job she turns to prostitution in order to make enough money to send to the Thénardiers, who are caring for her child Cosette. Before she dies of consumption, she asks Valjean to look after her daughter.
- Key to character: “What drives Fantine is getting back to Cosette. … She has so much strength that every time she gets kicked down, she gets back up — the goal is Cosette.”
- How she relates to Fantine: “I have two sisters who are 12 and 14 years younger. In a very big way, I was their caregiver in their childhood years. I would have done anything for them, no matter what it took. I still would. I draw on that love.”
- Background: Erbe, who does marketing and business development for a home care company, has been acting for 30 years, and singing for more than 40. She moved to Tucson in 1996 and has made frequent appearances on Tucson stages.
Erin Anderson, mezzo-soprano
Character: Adult Éponine
, the daughter of the nasty innkeepers, the Thénardiers. As an adult, she is a poor waif and is in love with the revolutionary Marius, who loves Cosette.
- Key to character: “I think that what sets her apart from the rest of her family and what saves her is she, like Fantine, represents sacrificial love.”
- How she relates to Éponine: “The raw emotion of loving someone and knowing it will (be unrequited) but still loving and wanting — it’s hopeless and bittersweet and everybody’s experience.”
- The crime technician studied anthropology in college, but she has never neglected music. “I can’t stay away from it,” she says.
Jessica Leonard, soprano
- Adult Cosette, Fantine’s daughter. After promising a dying Fantine that he would care for Cosette, Valjean takes her away from the greedy innkeepers the Thénardiers and adopts her. She is in love with Marius.
- Key to character: “She doesn’t know about her past, so she is looking to the future always,” says Leonard. “She’s a positive person, but also challenges Valjean as she tries to find out about her life. She’s starting to stand up for herself, and she knows what she wants.”
- How she relates to Cosette: “I connect with her in the way she always wants to move forward and sees the best in others. She pushes people to see the positive, and I can definitely bring that to her when I’m on stage.”
- Background: The fifth-grade teacher at Desert Willow Elementary had been in high school plays, but when she went off to college, she studied education. “I didn’t have the opportunities to perform” while she attended Northern Arizona University, she says. But a little more than a year ago she started taking voice lessons. And to audition. “It was scary; I didn’t know how to audition or what to expect.” But she had the singing voice and a clear love of “Les Misérables.” “I want everybody to fall in love with the musical the way I did when I first saw it,” she says. “If people can find one character they can identify with, that’s all they need.”
Tyler Wright, tenor
Character: Marius, a student revolutionary in love with Cosette.
- Key to the character: “He has one way of thinking and when he meets Cosette everything gets turned around. He’s never felt love like this, and now he has something to live for. Going into the revolution he wants to fight for the ideals, but at the same time he wants to live and love.”
- How he relates to Marius: The role “takes me back to those very early parts of what it’s like to fall in love. I remember what it was like to love for the first time … and how it pervades every aspect of your day.”
- Background: Wright, a software designer for IBM, graduated from Catalina Foothills High School and went off to Brigham Young University. In the first three years, he studied musical theater. By his fourth, he realized that he wanted a family and theater wasn’t the most stable of professions and switched majors. “I always knew I could make theater a fun hobby,” he says.
Dennis Tamblyn, tenor, and
Liz Cracchiolo, lyric and mezzo-soprano
Characters: The Thénardiers, the (dark) comic relief in the play, run a small inn and are devoid of scruples. They take in Cosette until her mother, Fantine, can make enough money to care for her, but they keep demanding more and more.
- Key to character: “He’s a terrible human being,” says Tamblyn. “He could care less about what anyone thinks, even his wife. He’s a true sociopath, but in the most loving way.” “They rip people off, they are very desperate,” says Cracchiolo. “If we can get people to come to the inn, listen to their stories and get them drunk, gosh, we can pick their pockets.”
- How they relate to the characters: “As an artist, I have run across a lot of Thénardiers,” says Tamblyn. “People sweet talk you, tell you all the things you want to hear, and then they disregard you. I’m imitating that.” “She speaks to me as a mom,” says Cracchiolo. “She adores Éponine and she wants to give her everything. I will do anything for my children, and she will, too.”
- Background: Tamblyn, a theater teacher to middle and high school students at Pusch Ridge Christian Academy, had intended to be a doctor, but once a choral director at the UA heard him sing, he was persuaded to change his major to voice. He went on to get his masters. He has performed opera around the world. Cracchiolo is a musical theater graduate and has appeared on many Tucson stages. In her everyday life, she is a financial planner and the mother of two children.