'Les Miz' family bonds: Show is its own universe

FresnoJanuary 11, 2014 

As Fantine, the wretched character who undergoes so much misery in her short and brutal life in "Les Misérables" — even if she does get to belt out the show-stopper "I Dreamed a Dream" — veteran Broadway performer Susan Spencer has been arrested so many times it's like second nature.

But at a recent rehearsal for Fresno Grand Opera's ambitious new production of "Les Misérables," Spencer felt anything but a sense of routine.

This gets a little complicated, but stay with her: As Spencer rehearsed the scene in which Fantine is arrested, she flashed back to the Broadway run of "Les Misérables." At that time she was playing Fantine, but two other key members of the Fresno production were in different roles. Peter Lockyer, playing Marius, was disguised onstage as one of the constables who picks her up and carries her off. (Fun aside for "Les Miz" fans: On Broadway, the actors playing such principal characters as Marius and Cosette appear in early scenes playing ensemble roles.)

And playing Jean Valjean, the leading character (of stole-a-loaf-of-bread fame) to whom Fantine pours out her entreaties not to be arrested, was Andrew Varela.

Now flash forward to the Fresno production, in which Lockyer portrays Jean Valjean and Varela is Javert, the righteous inspector who pursues him across the years.

No wonder Spencer felt a weird sense of déjà vu.

"I thought: We have been in exactly this moment before, but the tables are turned," Spencer says.

If all this wasn't complicated enough, consider: Spencer and Varela are married. And they are good friends with Lockyer — who is directing the Fresno production along with portraying Jean Valjean — and his wife, Melanie, who is helping out as assistant director.

It's little surprise that the Fresno production, which opens Friday at the Saroyan Theatre, feels like what more than one principal cast member refers to as "a 'Les Miz' summer camp."

"This is absolutely a reunion," Varela says.

As I've spent time in recent weeks behind the scenes of what the opera company is calling the most ambitious theatrical production ever to be locally produced in Fresno, one of the remarkable things is the caliber of the principal cast — and how interconnected they are.

"Les Miz" is one of those shows that gets into an actor's blood. If you have the vocal and acting chops for one of the principal roles, chances are you'll want to stay with it for a while. And considering the length of the show's original run on Broadway, from 1987 to 2003, plus the three-year national tour, it means there are dozens upon dozens of Mariuses and Valjeans and Cosettes and Fantines, most of whom have performed together at one time or another, forming a little universe of "Les Miz" veterans.

Many in the Fresno cast performed together in the recent national touring production of "Les Misérables," which played its last performance in Las Vegas in August.

Others, like Spencer — who with husband Varela just finished up a local production of the show in Milwaukee — are reuniting with old friends, such as Lockyer.

"I know him in so many capacities — as a friend, as a colleague, and now as a director," she says. "I'm just so proud."

Building the show

It's a Tuesday afternoon at the Fresno Fairgrounds, where the production is rehearsing before it moves into the Saroyan Theatre several days later. In one corner of the room, hundreds of costumes — rented from a production in Kansas City — hang on portable racks. To one side is a snack table stocked by opera volunteers, including a homemade sausage soup that's getting raves. Musical director Brad Haak, a veteran of the national tour, is standing by a piano rehearsing with the actors portraying Marius, Eponine and Cosette.

Dominating the center of the space is the huge barricade, a design for one of the national tours of the show that was used in Pittsburgh. Peter Lockyer is climbing around on it like a mountain goat testing every possible grip. The iconic red "Les Miz" flag is perched atop.

Melanie Lockyer watches her husband.

"There are going to be a lot of people climbing on that thing," she says. "He needs to know how it fits together, how it works."

A show like "Les Misérables" has thousands of details to consider. Some of the most important were gathering a stellar creative team. "Peter said he wanted the best," she says. That's how so many national tour veterans ended up on board. At $800,000, the budget for the show more than doubles any previous Fresno Grand Opera production.

Adding to the challenge: This production has a much bigger ensemble than a typical Broadway production. Those local actors have to be seamlessly integrated into the design and rhythm of the show.

One thing is clear: the workload for Lockyer these past few weeks has been intense.

"There is no harder role in musical theater than Jean Valjean," says Varela, who's happy to have made the transition to Javert. "Unless, of course, you're also the director."

The couple met while both were appearing in "Miss Saigon," but for the Lockyers, "Les Misérables" is definitely "their" show. (They still live in New York but have spent lots of time in recent years on the road.) With eight years for Peter in the show under his belt — and the strong web of relationships they've formed during that time — it's an important part of their lives.

"The people who do the show really bond," she says. "Some of the closest friends we've made are ones we met while Peter was doing Marius."

During the Fresno run, he sees more to the bigger-picture directorial duties, while she — a stickler for details — keeps careful watch on the small stuff.

Does she give her husband honest director's notes?

"Oh, yes," she says.

"You have no idea," he says with a laugh.

'Les Miz' universe

The long-awaited movie version of "Les Misérables" was about to hit theaters in 2012. The national touring company of the musical was in Washington, D.C., for an extended run, and the movie studio arranged for cast and crew to have their own private advance screening.

When it came time for Russell Crowe, playing the iconic role of Inspector Javert, to sing his big solo, everyone in the theater turned to look at Varela, playing Javert in the tour.

"I held up a lighter," he says.

Like the Lockyers, Varela and Spencer consider "Les Miz" an important show in their identity as a couple — though, like their friends, they actually met on a different show. (Spencer was playing Eva in the national tour of "Evita," and Varela was understudying the role of Che Guevara.) They live in Wisconsin when they aren't performing and touring.

Varela is too politic to say anything negative about Crowe's much maligned performance in the movie, while Spencer says she thinks Anne Hathaway's turn as Fantine "just wrecked me — I thought she was terrific."

But to these veterans, it seems clear that the "Les Misérables" universe has room for different versions of the beloved musical, from Hollywood blockbusters and elaborate Fresno Grand Opera productions to smaller-scale community theater productions, several of which graced the Fresno area in 2013.

There's also a sense of a "Les Miz" continuum — of the show moving from one generation to the next. Consider Max Quinlan, who played Marius in the national tour and will be reprising the role in Fresno. After he negotiated his Fresno appearance, he learned he was cast as an ensemble member and the cover for Enjolras in the upcoming Broadway revival, which opens in March in New York. He'll be making his Broadway debut.

"It's been my dream since I was 12 years old," Quinlan says. "I start rehearsals the day after I close here."

From New York to Fresno to New York — the "Les Misérables" tradition goes on.


Want a behind-the-scenes peek? To mark the road to the Saroyan Theatre, where "Les Misérables" opens Friday for a four-performance run, The Bee, on its entertainment blog fresnobeehive.com, has been running a special series. Valerie Salcedo and Patrick Brancato, both members of the ensemble, along with Bee arts writer Donald Munro, are offering daily updates that include photos, videos and observations from members of the creative team, cast and crew.


Fresno Grand Opera's "Les Misérables," Jan. 17-19, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St. fresnograndopera.org, (559) 442-5699. $55.50-$130.50.



The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter.

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