‘Les Mis’ on key with message of mercy

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The orchestral music will swell; intricate costumes will paint poverty, riches and revolutionaries; and the heart-wrenching solos will soar.

One would expect no less from "Les Misérables," the sweeping, sung-through musical set in 19th-century France and based on the novel by French poet, novelist and dramatist Victor Hugo. But this eight-time Tony Award-winning musical will not be on a Paris or London stage or under Broadway lights. For only the second time ever, "Les Mis" will be performed by an amateur theater company in Virginia. The upcoming production will include a 20-person orchestra; 40 cast members and more than 400 costumes; 35 wireless mics; and a beloved priest, Father Robert C. Cilinski, playing the bishop.

All Saints' Upper Room Theatre Ministry in Manassas, under the direction of Rob Tessier, will offer lifelong or soon-to-be fans of "Les Mis" seven performances in the parish activity center July 15-20.

With both a powerful message and musical grandeur, "Les Mis" is "the pinnacle of musical theater," said Tessier, who has founded two theater ministries in the past 20 years. The tale of mercy, redemption and transformation gives the play a timeless ability to connect with the human soul, he said.

At its core, "Les Mis" dramatizes a few short lines from the bishop, said Tessier: "To love another person is to see the face of God."

First performed in Paris in 1980, the musical was translated into English and opened in London in 1985 before hitting Broadway in 1987. Performed countless times, including abridged versions at American high schools, the full script was not available to amateur groups until last year.

Reston Community Players is the only other amateur theater company in Virginia to perform the epic musical.

The three-hour-long performance tells the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant, and his quest for redemption after serving 19 years in jail for stealing a piece of bread. Valjean breaks parole to start his life anew and is given a second chance when a bishop shows him great compassion. Pursued relentlessly by a police inspector named Javert, Valjean and an array of characters are swept into a revolutionary period in France.

The cast is composed of local amateur thespians - primarily Catholic - including several teachers who work at diocesan high schools, All Saints parishioners, college students and high schoolers. All members of the orchestra are professionals recruited by Music Director Cathy Drummond, and they play for free.

One of the biggest challenges of the production was casting. Typically about 80 people audition for shows produced by Upper Room Theatre, now in its 13th year. This year, nearly 200 people tried out. "Casting was almost a full-time job," Tessier said.

Then there were the rehearsals. Scenes with music are more challenging than those with spoken dialogue, according to Tessier, so instead of the usual 12 hours each week, cast members rehearsed about 20 hours per week for the past seven weeks.

Yet music awakens thoughts and feelings in the audience that words alone cannot, Tessier said. "It provides the emotional sense of what's going on; you could listen to it and not understand all the words but get a feel for the message."

One character that conveys the play's central message is the Bishop of Digne, played by Father Cilinski, the longtime pastor of All Saints and founding pastor of Upper Room Theatre Ministry.

Having a priest play the bishop adds spiritual depth to the role, said Tessier.

This performance also has special meaning for Father Cilinski and All Saints parishioners. Father Cilinski was transferred to Church of the Nativity in Burke after the death of Father Richard B. Martin in May, and he initially was not sure if he'd be able to continue with the production.

But with the support of Nativity priests, he's been able to squeeze in rehearsals and participate in what has become a farewell performance.

Father Cilinski - who has no formal musical training but is a lover of theater and has been in several productions - said a number of Nativity staff and parishioners plan to see the play.

"It's the new parish connecting with the old; it's a transition that I'm grateful for, and that has been a joy," he said.

"The bishop is one of the most powerful and beautiful roles a priest - or anyone - could play," Father Cilinski added. "It is a role of mercy and compassion. It shows that the smallest act of mercy can make a major difference in someone's life."

The stage design includes a "three-quarter thrust rake" - a 12-foot-wide section of stage that juts into the audience about 24 feet and has a gradual downward slope.

With actors generally closer to audience members, Tessier said the musical will have a more intimate feel.

Some of the more adult language has been modified to make it family-friendly while preserving the integrity of the script, said Tessier. Proceeds will benefit teen mission trips to the Dominican Republic, WorkCamp and retreats.

Robert DeBroeck, a teacher at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax who plays Javert, notes that while the show is an amateur production, attendees will experience the quality of professional theater. More importantly, though, he hopes the audience leaves pondering the heart of the play.

"The message is that even if you think you don't deserve God's mercy, He's always there with an open hand for you," said DeBroeck. "This musical is really that message of hope and faith."

To buy photos of the production, click here.

If you go

"Les Misérables" will be held July 15- 20 in the activity center at All Saints Church, 9300 Stonewall Road, Manassas. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. For tickets, click here.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014