Molly Rhode leads an actor-focused “Les Miserables”
The Skylight's production is the first professional staging in the region, and Rhode's planned an extra-theatrical approach that emphasizes its singers.
The Skylight’s built an entire season around the twin concepts of freedom and revolution, and this weekend’s opening show is at the heart of it all: Les Miserables, the beloved musical getting its first professional Milwaukee staging since it originally premiered more than 25 years ago.
It’s a huge show, requiring nine talented principals who cross paths in 19th-century France as a rebellion brews among the common people and the fugitive Jean Valjean strives for redemption. So it makes sense that Skylight would place Molly Rhode in the director’s chair. Last year, she led the Sound of Music cast, the largest ever at Skylight Music Theater, to an acclaimed run that ultimately became big in a second way: in box office receipts, becoming the highest-grossing show in the company’s history.
Rhode says this production feels larger than the other; while Sound of Music may have had a large cast in total, she points out, that cast was compartmentalized into various segments. In Les Mis, the bulk of the singers are all on stage at once, and there’s an altogether greater weight to the story they’re telling. So much so, she says, that she considered not throwing her hat in the ring at all. “I had to pause to think about if I wanted to be involved with it, to be honest, because I think it’s a really challenging piece. Emotionally challenging. … It scared me a little bit and I thought that was a good reason to pursue it.”
Les Miserables is not the sort of show that is unfamiliar to the average audience member, as one of the most popular musicals ever written. Rhode attributes the show’s popularity in part to its unique juxtaposition of its plotline – the second half focusing on a popular uprising that doesn’t find success – and its ultimately optimistic message. “This show is all about hope, and redemption, and second chances – and you’re not human if you haven’t needed a second chance at some point in your life.”
The Skylight’s production comes only a year after a cinematic adaptation in 2012, and recordings of various concert stagings are easy to find online. Rhode says that increases the chance that the audience will come with a certain image of Les Mis in their minds, and while she has every intention to live up to it, she’s got an image of her own to present – one which stays true to its roots as a piece of musical theater. “It’s really important to me that everyone remember, when we sit down, that this is a theatrical production,” Rhode said. “It’s not a film, it’s not a concert, but we’re in the theater and we’re about to do a big ol’ play.”
Part-and-parcel with this approach is an increased emphasis on the actors and ensemble over elements of staging or technical wizardry. Rhode says those parts of the show are greatly important, but can occasionally overshadow the complex, beautiful score, and the skill of the performers who are taking on its challenge. In addition, she adds, focusing the production around the actors makes effective use of the Cabot Theatre’s smaller but more intimate space, a difference from the huge Broadway-esque spaces where professional productions of Les Mis are more frequently staged.
“The Cabot Theatre offers us fantastic opportunities for intimacy that I don’t think people usually associate with Les Mis,” Rhode said. Rather than being a wide distance from the stage even in the closer rows, she says, audiences will be right in the thick of the action as it transpires. “There is a deep range of human emotion in this story, and it is stunning to be able to experience every expression, every detail of each actor’s journey.”
In 2014, that journey will continue with the rest of the Skylight’s freedom-seeking season. For now, your chance to hear the people sing is just a barricade away.
Skylight Music Theatre will perform Les Miserables from Nov. 22 to Dec. 29. Tickets range from $22.50 to $70 and can be purchased online or at (414) 291-7800.