Preparing for ambitious musical is transformative for young actors
By Kameron Morton
It has been translated into 21 languages. It has played in more than 300 cities in 43 countries. It has been seen by millions of people. And June 14-17, Young Actors Guild will perform it at the Alma Performing Arts Center along with 23 members of the Fort Smith Symphony.
The phenomenon that is Les Misérables, or 'Les Mis' as it is often nicknamed, first appeared to the world as a novel by Victor Hugo. More than a century later, it was turned into one of the most well-loved musicals of all time.
The story follows Jean Valjean, a man who was imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, and his journey to redemption. Playing this leading role is Chad Burris of Alma, who will attend Ouachita Baptist University in the fall. This will be his last YAG role, because he will be too old next year.
Two cast members; one experienced and one new, on their roles
"I didn't know how many other opportunities I would get to play this role," said Burris. "I thought, 'I want to be in that, and I want to play Jean Valjean.' It really is a dream role."
"At the very beginning of the play you see Valjean deciding that he's going to change who he is and live a better life," Burris said. "Doing that scene is really hard because I have to find that emotional point in myself to make sure that translates to the audience."
The comic relief of this emotionally heavy play are Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, a conniving couple who steal from anyone and everyone. Catherine Leimberg, a Northside High School junior, is playing Madame Thenardier. Unlike Burris who has been performing with YAG for years, this is Leimberg's first production with the group.
"When I was in the seventh grade, we were in a lit lab class and we read some of Les Misérables the book and watched the movie," Leimberg said. "I thought, 'This is so crazy, (Valjean's) life was destroyed because he did one bad deed.' I always thought that was so interesting."
"When I found out YAG was doing (Les Mis), I was thinking, 'Must be part of the show,'" Leimberg said. "I didn't care what I was, chorus member, third spears-man to the right - I didn't care."
Workshop with Broadway's Jean Valjean
Last month, the young cast of Les Mis got the opportunity of a lifetime. Gary Morris, the first American to play Jean Valjean on Broadway, spent the entire day doing a Master Class with the cast. Morris was in the area to perform at Van Buren's Old Timers Day street festival and agreed to meet the cast after being contacted through his website.
"Working with Gary Morris was awesome," Burris said. "He really showed me and everyone else how to step out of who we are and, as he said, 'Own the space.' I took that very seriously, about taking the space and making it your own and not caring about what else is going on but just standing there and delivering. I'm just in shock that we got to do that."
"Gary Morris was a character," Leimberg said. "I felt like I was inside the Actors Studio, how there's the one big-wig actor and then all the other young actors were sitting around taking in every word."
Morris was just as impressed with the cast as they were with him.
"This cast is exceptional," Morris said. "It's really extraordinary. The company as a whole is really ahead of the game."
Like Burris and Leimberg, Morris feels a real connection with Les Mis. "After I saw Les Mis, I said, 'That guy is me, I can relate to that, I can play him,'" Morris said. "(The play) is an emotional roller coaster. The audience laughs, they cry, they wonder, they become emotionally connected. There's something for everyone in Les Mis."
"When I see the story put to music, it seems so much more emotional to me, because I think music comes from your soul," Leimberg said. "Les Mis has reached so many different people." After spending the day working with the cast, Morris announced he was going to come back to see one of the performances.
Both Burris and Leimberg spoke highly of their fellow cast members.
"I've been doing YAG since 2002, and I think that this is by far the most focused cast I have been in, because I think we all know how big of a challenge this is," Burris said. "Even though we have the cast to do this, it's still a challenge. None of us have ever gone through (these experiences), so we're really having to tap into things we know nothing about, which is really difficult to do as an actor."
This 49-member cast includes actors from ages 9 to 19. It involves students from as far away as Booneville. Most cast members will rehearse five days a week for at least two hours at a time.
Plunging into her role lightens her off-stage challenges
While Leimberg is excited to be in it, this play has come at a sad time in her life. Her father has cancer of an unknown primary, of CUP. Cancer is found in one or more sites, but the primary site is not known.
"I dreamed a dream and it came true," Leimberg said. "When I saw that cast list, and it said Madame Thenardier, Catherine Leimberg, I screamed. I was so excited."
"It's difficult, knowing that half of your dream is shattered when your dad ... has cancer, and that we don't know if there's a cure for it," said Leimberg. "To be living my dream in Les Mis is kind of like my escape," she continued. "Even though my dad has cancer, that's not in my head when I'm being crazy Thenardier."
"My dad doesn't want me to sit there and be upset and cry," said Leimberg. "He wants me to do something that's in my heart."
"Doing this with my dad having cancer is difficult, but it would be more difficult to not do Les Mis," Leimberg said. "I think this experience is great, and I'm glad to have such a supporting family that wants me to do this. You can only thank God for what he's given you."
Les Misérables, a musical by Claude-Michel Shonberg, Jean-Marc Natel, and Alan Boubil, is directed by Missy Gipson with musical director Brenda Yelvington and members of the Fort Smith Symphony, under the direction of John Jeter.
The Young Actors Guild will perform Les Misérables at the Alma Performing Arts Center, 103 East Main Street, Alma Ark. Curtain times are 7 p.m. June 14-15, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. June 16 and 2 p.m. June 17. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children 12 and under. Tickets are available online and by phone from the arts center at almapac.org or 479-632-2129.