On the day that an email announced that the rights for the stage version of “Les Miserables” had became available again for community theater groups, Dana and Jenny Shaheen’s Chameleon Productions was the first Central Coast company to apply for the rights. They were given permission within a couple of weeks, but so were other groups in the region.
“The other groups heard that we were first in line, so to speak, and agreed to decline the rights, as the community would be too small to support more than one effort at a time,” Jenny Shaheen explained.
Since then, she and Dana have been living months of exhaustion and excitement, she said. Rehearsing a cast of more than 30 performers, with the dialogue being sung through like an opera, directing rousing all-cast numbers, staging bloody battles, and re-creating the streets of 19th-century Paris for the Clark Center stage has been “an exhilarating challenge.”
The epic tale by Victor Hugo is set in the turmoil of political revolution. It chronicles the life of Jean Valjean, who is released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Facing prejudice and mistreatment for his past, he sets out on a struggle for redemption, being avidly pursued by Inspector Javert, whose police mindset insists that Valjean will always be a criminal. The story is filled with rich characters, among them a kindly priest, Valjean’s lovely adopted daughter, her doomed mother, a pair of corrupt, cruel and sometimes comic innkeepers, and a dynamic young revolutionary leader.
When the Shaheens put out an audition notice in early May, 110 people turned out. Usually, Jenny Shaheen said, they see only half as many. In this musical version by Alain Boubil and Claude Michel Schonberg the “dialogue” is all sung, so it requires outstanding voices.
“No roles were pre-cast,” she said, “as we have found that someone always shows up who surprises you, often someone you have never seen on stage locally before.”
The male leads, Jacob Garrison as Valjean and Jacob Shearer as Javert are a case in point. Previously unknown to Chameleon, they have “powerhouse voices,” she said. They are also imposing figures, so tall that their costumes had to be custom made because available costumes were too small. The female leads are Sydni Abenido, Taylor Safina and herself, Jenny Shaheen noted. Other actor singers who may be more familiar to area audiences are Gregory Gorrindo, Matt Ambrose, Nicholas Johnson and Robin Kirk Wolf.
Jenny Shaheen said it’s often difficult to find enough qualified male performers.
“There are fewer men than women who perform in this area, and they are always in demand. Another challenge for this production is the sheer scope of ‘Les Miserables.’ ”
There are also difficult technical aspects. The majority of the action unfolds on a motorized turntable. The cast has rehearsed for two and a half months with the notion that the floor is rotating beneath their feet, but they won’t actually experience it until a few final days of rehearsal when it is installed on the Clark Center stage, Jenny Shaheen explained.
“The sets are their own brand of fun. We rarely have a good location to construct them and usually end up spreading out on our own 1-acre property and hope that our neighbors enjoy the creative process.”
Her husband, director Dana Shaheen, and Dave Linfield are set designers. Jenny noted that The Clark Center is a state-of-the-art performing arts center.
“We are ridiculously lucky to have it in our own backyard. It affords us all of the technical elements that separate a community production from what professional companies have access to on a regular basis. And although we have assigned seating, there really is not a bad seat in the house. The one surprise to me remains how many times I run into a local who says, ‘I’ve never been there.’ ”
Tackling such a huge project sometimes seems daunting, Jenny Shaheen said.
“It’s an enormous commitment, and it never fails that about two weeks into it we say to ourselves, ‘Why did we do this?’ But then we’ll have a moment in rehearsal where we witness the results of someone’s hard work, along with the bonding of the cast — people who were strangers two weeks ago — and we get an enormous sense of satisfaction in having been the ones to provide this rare and amazing opportunity.”
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and Aug. 2; 2 and 8 p.m. Aug. 3
Clark Center, 487 Fair Oaks Ave., Arroyo Grande
$25 to $35
489-9444 or www.clarkcenter.org