Performances are selling out quickly for the upcoming student production of the sung-through musical “Les Misérables,” the 20th annual student collaboration between Heartwood Theater and Lincoln Academy.
Griff Braley, drama teacher and director at LA and Heartwood artistic director, chose this piece for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s grounded in great literature, and most of this young cast of 40 students had never heard of Victor Hugo’s novel or this musical. Passing on the timeless lessons in great literature is part of Braley’s personal mission as a teacher and a director.
“Les Misérables” both challenges students and uplifts, with themes of survival of the human spirit amid injustice and broken dreams, grace, and redemption. This is a work to create the deep ensemble ethos, which will no doubt be palpable in the Poe Theater performances.
Heartwood and LA combined resources to produce “Les Misérables” in Heartwood’s first season 20 years ago. Bookending these 20 years with the same production held a certain appeal.
Despite COVID-related setbacks over the past two years, there is a large group of students committing to theater right now, which is very exciting and rewarding as well as very challenging. Choosing the right show for the right students at the right time is part simple rubric, part intuition, and all about the timing.
Enter Beth Preston, longtime LA vocal instructor, who helped audition students for “Les Misérables” in the spring of 2022. Side by side in the Poe Theater, Braley and Preston combined 23 years of shared musical production experiences, to audition and decide whether “Les Misérables” would be achievable for these students, two-thirds of whom are freshman and sophomores. Despite the monumental challenge, their joint answer came up “yes.”
Principal singers began working with Preston this summer, learning to manage and nuance their challenging numbers. Preston continues working with individuals and groups, to master this two-hour musical with dozens of tunes. Many of these students have not sung in public before, and the amount of skill-building and learning being achieved is, in itself, epic.
Michelle Bruckner, a New York-based dance instructor and performer, has worked with Heartwood on several productions. She’s on board teaching again for “Les Misérables.” Rehearsal time is divided in a detailed schedule, between Bruckner (movement), Preston (vocals) and Braley (acting and directing).
Packing 20 years of productions, Heartwood owns many of the costumes, footwear, hats, and accessories necessary to dress nearly 40 people on stage. Beyond that, countless hours have been invested by Braley and costumer Heidi Kopishke to round out and harmonize the costume plot with additional purchases, often specific to a character or student.
Kopishke’s job does not end with acquiring and fitting costumes, however; she will manage each production, maintain costumes throughout the production, and end by cleaning and restocking all of these pieces.
Rehearsals have been in process for many weeks, now, at a slower pace than some productions. Due to the scope of vocal work required simply to do a full run-through, Braley has adapted the usual rehearsal schedule, pacing students and conserving their voices. Rehearsals were often for subsets of the cast, simplifying the process and diminishing the number of students necessary for each session. The full cast is in full run-through mode, as opening night approaches.
Typically, with a show this size, students are still striving to simply make it through the two hours alive. This reshaped rehearsal schedule has allowed a bit more time to delve into the nitty-gritty of acting, which will strengthen the overall production. It’s not just about the music. These are real characters, complete with struggles and flaws and strengths, and students are attempting to grasp the larger questions Victor Hugo addressed, in his novel.
All in all, these 40 students are engaged in an extraordinary adventure, the likes of which many Maine high school students will never know. Combining resources and professional instructors offers opportunities which far exceed typical expectations, and this heartfelt production will ring the rafters of the Poe Theater.
Seven evening performances are scheduled for Oct. 27-29 and Nov. 2-5. All performances begin at 7 p.m. in the Parker Poe Theater at Lincoln Academy. Shows are selling out quickly, and reservations are a must. To reserve a seat, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 563-1373.