by Larry Austin
Everything about "Les Misérables," the musical based on the epic Victor Hugo novel, is big, so it's only fitting that Grand Island High School is producing the show with its biggest cast ever.
Approximately 100 students are involved with this year's spring musical that promises to pack the auditorium at GIHS. One of the longest-running musicals ever, "Les Misérables" especially appeals to young adults, "and that was obvious by the number of students who came out and auditioned. It was the largest number of kids who auditioned ever," said Carolyn Lokken, who produces and directs the show with Michael DeDario.
The show follows the story of Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread and chased by Inspector Javert after breaking parole. The story takes place amidst the poverty and misery of post-Napoleonic France and reaches an apex at the Paris Uprising of 1832.
Matthew Ells conducts the pit orchestra. He likened "Les Misérables" to a big Rodgers and Hammerstein show, but with contemporary music that provides "a more modern twist. It kind of redefined the way a musical would look and sound."
"This is definitely one of the toughest shows around to pull off in a high school setting," Ells said. "For vocal parts, the ranges are huge, and the pit book would give a professional a run for his money."
DeDario and Lokken said the students at GIHS are more than up for the task of attempting a more mature show.
"It's got lots of very strong roles for people to take on," DeDario said of the show. "We keep getting more and more talented kids, and we want to get as many of them involved as possible, and this gave us a chance to do that."
The cast includes students sharing roles on alternating nights of the four-show run. Keelan Erhard (Valjean) and Nigel Michki (Javert) will perform each night, but most of the other lead roles are shared.
"We have all this talent, so we have two Cosettes and two Mariuses," Lokken said.
"Nobody is in there because we had to fill a spot," DeDario said, but rather actors were cast to make the most of their talents.
A byproduct of making room for more talent is the audience will see multiple interpretations of the same character and same songs.
"Especially with the double-casting, you get to see multiple people put their own take on the characters, and it gives it more diversity," said Samantha Pangborn, who will share the role of Fantine with Lydia Bernatovicz.
DeDario said the rights to the show became available within the last couple years. The student production, like the original all sung-through, is not a vastly watered-down shadow of the popular show that opened in the 1980s. The student version has all the songs, though small sections are cut, and some keys are different to adjust for the high school singer's voice, Ells said.
"But other than that, it's the real deal," Ells added.
That the show has run on and off on London's West End, on Broadway, and in concert settings is a testament to its great appeal to audiences, Lokken said.
"It's got great character development, it's got a lot of variety, it's got a pretty relevant message I think that crosses generations and ages," she said.
One of those messages is the redeeming quality of love. Erhard said the theme is exemplified in the lyrics from the epilogue his Valjean sings with Fantine and Eponine: "And remember/The truth that once was spoken/To love another person/Is to see the face of God."
"It's not a feel-good musical, but it's good and it's emotional and it's going to be really powerful," Bernatovicz said.
"It's a great opportunity to see talented kids pull off something that not everyone can," Ells said.