Can you hear the people sing?

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First Posted: 7/30/2013

It’s been a long time coming.

That’s the sentiment many members of musical theater are expressing when it comes to being able to finally stage a production of the classic sung-through musical “Les Misérables,” the rights of which were just made available to groups outside of Broadway and touring shows. The Music Box Dinner Playhouse in Swoyersville wasted no time in staging the show, a production that theater members say is the biggest undertaking in the organization’s 33-year history.

“This is something that, for the last 20 years, I’ve wanted to direct,” director Debbie Zehner said.

“We put the show together in three weeks and by the second week, I was like, ‘What was I thinking?’” she added with a laugh.

It’s no wonder that it proved such a challenge, as “Les Misérables” is filled to the brim with characters of depth and numerous settings throughout 19th-century France, all strung together by song after memorable song.

“Les Misérables,” based on a novel by Victor Hugo, tells the story of Jean Valjean and his quest for redemption after having served 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew, and subsequently attempting to escape. Along the way, a bevy of characters experiencing life during the French revolution are introduced, including a band of schoolboys looking to fight for their people, a poor woman who turns to prostitution to raise money to care for her sick daughter, and an inspector hell-bent on putting Valjean back in jail for good.

Seth Brandreth, 43, of Kingston, plays central character Valjean, of whom he’s very familiar with.

“I have used a song he sings, ‘Bring Him Home,’ numerous times as an audition piece over the years,” Brandreth said. “He’s an amazing character. This poor man has lived half his life in jail and he doesn’t know how to adjust once he goes on parole. No one will give him any breaks, and he just tries to do good.”

Valjean meets Fantine, a down-and-out woman whose child, Cosette, is being watched over by despicable innkeepers, and who must turn to prostitution to be able to send money to care for her.

“To me, she is one of the most universal kinds of characters,” said Amanda Reese, 27, of Dallas, who plays Fantine. “She’s a woman who is all alone, and we all have feelings like that sometimes. She’s doing everything she possibly can to survive.”

Reese’s character sings one of the show’s most iconic songs, “I Dreamed a Dream.”

“I’m so blessed, being able to perform that song,” Reese said. “It’s more than I could ever imagine. I’ve seen it performed so many ways. It’s a beautiful song, but what she’s going through is not that pretty, so I tried to, whatever emotion I feel while singing, just go with it, making it a raw performance. I want people to be able to see the character’s true emotion at her most vulnerable point.”

Katie Finklestein, 22, of Kingston, plays Eponine, a character involved in a love triangle. At one point the show skips ahead some years to a grown-up Cosette, who falls in love with Marius, who is part of a group of student revolutionaries and is friends with Eponine – yet has no idea that she is in love with him.

“She’s relatable, but also tragic, and her actions are primarily driven by her love for Marius, maybe even blindly so,” Finklestein said. “I think to understand her point of view it’s important to remember that her life is in shambles, and Marius is the only person that makes her feel she has any self-worth.”

The role of Eponine is a special one for Finklestein to undertake.

“On my parent’s wedding invitation, there was a line from one of the songs: ‘To love another person is to see the face of God.’ They were so excited when I got the part, because now I get to sing the line on their wedding invitation.”

And still, while all this is going on in the world of the “Les Mis” characters, Valjean finds himself being hunted relentlessly by policeman Javert.

“He was born in a jail and has an absolute hatred for criminals,” said Bill Lipski, 60, of Nanticoke, who plays Javert, a part he said was his dream role. “I play him very, very mean, but I don’t think he’s inherently mean. He makes himself that way; he refuses to let himself give in to any kind of emotions as far as criminals are concerned.”

It’s rather obvious that “Les Mis” is not your typical musical.

“It certainly has a different color to it,” Brandreth said.

“It’s not a sugar-coated musical,” Finklestein said. “It’s a powerful piece that showcases the human condition through various types of characters, so it’s relatable on more than one level.”

This is something every cast member pointed to as the reason “Les Mis” has stood the test of time, being produced since the 1980s on various stages throughout the world.

“It’s a universal theme of struggle,” Reese said. “Mankind is always struggling; there are high and low points in all our lives. And then you see a group of individuals that want to make a change, and it’s about people coming together, which you see in everyday life.”

“At the end, you should see them,” Lipski said of the audience. “They’re crying, wiping their eyes.”

This is certainly due to the spectacular cast, said Zehner, who was floored by the people that are part of the cast, which runs about 30.

“In one scene, people are factory workers, and two songs later, they come out as whores and men on the street,” Zehner said. “I am just so thrilled by every single person cast in this show. My leads are fantastic, and this ensemble is probably the best I’ve heard in the Wyoming Valley in the past 30 years.”

She also credits musical director Kim Crofchick and set designer Michael Gallagher for the success of the production.

Through all the themes and characters that come about in “Les Mis,” the shining star is the music, which includes soulful ballads such as Javert’s “Stars” and epic ensemble pieces like “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

“The music is just amazing,” Brandreth said. “There’s no denying it. When you walk out of the theater, you’re singing or humming it for three days after.”