An epic theater production, by definition, should include elements of love, tragedy, passion, and persistence, and should lift the audience from the role of passive spectator and place them directly in the middle of the action.
“Les Misérables,” originally presented to the world in the form of a historical novel written by Victor Hugo in 1862, has been adapted into a high school musical that tests young actors and singers, and allows them to push themselves in their artistic pursuits onstage.
The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School performing arts department, with help from the music department, parents, teachers, and community members, will present the show at the Performing Arts Center as its annual school production on Thursday, March 31, at 7 pm, Friday, April 1, at 7 pm, and Saturday, April 2, at 7 pm. A matinee will be held on Sunday, April 3, at 2 pm.
According to director of the performance, Brooke Ditchfield, she knew the students who would be in the program this year, and knew how talented and capable they were. “We always try to pick a show that will really challenge and stretch the students’ abilities, but also will be a really good fit,” Ditchfield said.
After the past two years of little to no performing, the students in “Les Mis” are getting back onstage and shaking some of the dust off, and Ditchfield said she knew this particular production would be a great way to re-enter the world of theater. She said the theater department wouldn’t have chosen “Les Mis” if they weren’t sure of the students’ abilities and professionalism.
“Last year we did something called the ‘Silver Linings Showcase,’ where students got to pick a song they wanted to sing that meant something to them, and the student who is playing Javert, Emmett Favreau, sang ‘Stars’ from the show,” Ditchfield said. “Then Abigail [Chandler] sort of turned to me and was like, ‘You know, we could actually do this.’ We always take our lead from the students, and that was a pretty big lead.”
Especially this year, Ditchfield said, the Island community has shown immense support for the show. Even alumni from the theater program who recently graduated have returned to help with prop setup and stage management. For Ditchfield, the collective dedication to putting on a great show is at the heart of performing arts. “Of course it’s learning skills and technique and all those things, but at the center, you learn how to work with other people toward a common goal — people who might be very different from you, or have different experiences and perspectives,” Ditchfield said.
Coming out of COVID, the scope of involvement in “Les Mis” is significant. Ditchfield said the performing arts department has invited members of the Island Community Chorus to sing with the group, and even the elementary schools are pitching in, with their own performers as young as 7.
“Getting everyone involved from set building to helping out with costumes and props — it’s a total community effort, it’s not just a high school musical,” she said. “It’s truly an epic effort by all for a truly epic story.”
Although the original Broadway show is quite a bit longer, the musical score for the high school production, according to Ditchfield, is a shining example of what can be accomplished when everyone works together onstage. “The score is up there with ‘West Side Story’ and all the greats,” she said.
To be doing a show like this, where the themes of persistence and hope despite seemingly indomitable odds are ever-present throughout, Ditchfield said presents a challenging yet meaningful call to action for young artists. “We have an important job as artists — to observe the world around you and reflect. We’ve been making so many parallels between what is going on in society today and what is happening onstage,” Ditchfield said.
Already, the student actors have poured their hearts into practice and rehearsals, and by the time opening day rolls around, Ditchfield said, she is confident the group will take the lead and put on a remarkable show. “By that time, they will have taken it all into their own hands fully. To see them take ownership in their work and pride in themselves, it’s the most amazing thing, and the potential for them is limitless,” Ditchfield said.
According to MVRHS senior Emmett Favreau, his role as Inspector Javert (the central antagonist) has allowed him to deeply explore a character as he hasn’t in the past. Emmett typically gets typecast as villains because of his deep voice, but this villain is special for him.
“Javert, just like every other character in ‘Les Mis,’ has a certain motive that is justified in his own mind,” Emmett said.
Like many epics, “Les Mis” retains its cultural and historical relevance. Emmett said the show speaks to what is going on in society today, with the bloody motifs of war and tragedy only combated by persistence and hope. “There are all these revolutionaries, but as they keep pushing, there is a force that seems to be undyingly fighting against them,” he said.
The biggest challenge for Emmett playing Javert is that the stern, brooding character contrasts sharply with his actual disposition. “I’m pretty chipper and outgoing,” Emmett laughed. “Javert is all about silence and straightness, all his words are very overpronounced. Those are the kinds of qualities I don’t have as a person that I need to create onstage.”
Engracia Scheller, an MVRHS senior playing Eponine, said her character is confident, strong, and resilient. She doesn’t follow the rules of femininity laid out in classical literature or theater, and she helps Marius get close with Cosette, despite being in love with him. “She essentially sacrifices herself protecting him,” Engracia said. Engracia pointed to the show portraying the French Revolution, and said there are many parallels to draw between the content of “Les Mis” and what is taking place in Ukraine.
Senior Tenley Brooks, who also plays Eponine, said the character is a strong female voice in a story that devotes the most time to powerful male characters. With Eponine being such an assertive force in the performance, Tenley said, sometimes it’s hard for her to get into that highly confident mindspace. “Eponine has a lot more confidence than I do, so it’s hard to portray that sense of ‘I am the best at what I do,’” Tenley said.
Tenley drew the connection between “Les Mis” and Black Lives Matter, saying that if there were to be a modern retelling of this tragic story, it might be representative of the challenges of African Americans in the U.S.
“As a revolution, that is what Black Lives Matter is trying to be, and bring about social change when there is this challenge that seems so huge. But even if they fail at some points, it doesn’t stop them from continuing to fight,” Tenley said.
Annabelle Brothers, a junior at MVRHS, playing Cosette, said that despite hardship after hardship, and heartbreak after heartbreak, Cosette prevails. She noted that many of the hopeful moments in the play are led by Cosette and Marius’ relationship. For Annabelle, she said being able to work with her friends to put together such a momentous performance is an experience she will always cherish. “If we can all somehow contribute to this, just like in the show when pretty much all of France helps to build the barricade, everyone is doing all they possibly can,” she said.
Tickets to see the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School performance of “Les Misérables” will be available at the Performing Arts Center opening day, Thursday, March 31, at 7 pm. The show will continue to run on Friday, April 1, at 7 pm, and Saturday, April 2, at 7 pm. A matinee will be held on Sunday, April 3, at 2 pm.