A few cast members from the production of "Les Miserables" pose Sept. 6, 2013, before rehearsals for publicity photos on the Tucker Theatre stage at MTSU in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Photo courtesy of MTSU News)
Middle Tennessee State University will present one of the first university-licensed complete Broadway versions of "Les Misérables" beginning this week at Tucker Theatre on campus.
It's the largest musical theater production staged to date on the Murfreesboro campus, and tickets are still available at www.mtsuarts.com.
Performances are scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 19, through Saturday, Sept. 21, at 7:30 p.m., and one matinee is planned at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22.
"It dwarfs anything we've ever done before," said musical director Raphael Bundage, a professor of vocal performance in the MTSU School of Music. "We've had large casts before, but the ensembles and principals in this production bring the total to 52."
The cast includes MTSU students and alumni, as well as members of the surrounding community.
A crew of 25-plus and an 18-piece orchestra complete the team recreating the Paris Student Uprising of 1832 on a minimalist set with characters who've become household names from Victor Hugo's 1862 novel: Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, Fantine, Cosette.
Some cast members are playing dual roles, while others are sharing their roles with colleagues over the four-night run. They were cast last spring, and the principals rehearsed over the summer.
The full cast returned to MTSU two weeks before the fall 2013 semester started for a daily eight hours of "musical boot camp" to prepare for the physically and vocally strenuous production.
Very little is spoken in "Les Misérables"; the operetta is sung, often while climbing, fighting, dancing, crawling on the stage or writhing in physical and emotional pain.
"Eight hours a day gave them a real summer-stock, professional experience. They worked, and are working, so hard," said director Kristi Shamburger, a department of speech and theatre professor who also directed MTSU's productions of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Guys and Dolls" and "Into the Woods."
"It's amazed me to witness how hard these students are working," added Alice Matlock Clements, a 2001 MTSU vocal performance alumna, professional singer and vocal teacher who's portraying the doomed factory worker Fantine.
She’s alternating the role with senior theater major Lindsey Mapes of Murfreesboro.
"They're all so talented," she said. "I know everyone who sees the show will enjoy it."
Clements' 8-year-old daughter, Caitlin, a student at Middle Tennessee Christian School, is sharing the role of the abused orphan, Little Cosette, with 12-year-old Sarah Oppmann, a student at Blackman Middle School.
Shamburger said the production is "very blessed to have Tucker Theatre as a space to present this." She added that the set design, which was created and implemented by the department’s production manager, Justin Durham, keeps everything the cast and crew needs on stage during the performance.
The design not only allows the cast to move set pieces but keeps the rapidly paced musical moving forward without pauses for set changes.
"Professor Shamburger has done a magnificent job of appointing that stage," Bundage said of his producing partner. “We have big crowd scenes and lots of intimate chamber scenes with soliloquies, and every one of them works in the space."
Shamburger noted, however, that the effort is a companywide one.
"When a show is as epic as this one, and you don't have a Broadway budget, you have to rely on magic a lot," she said jokingly, pointing out the stage lighting by MTSU alumnus Richard K. Davis, president of the Nashville-based Ardee Design Group and a lighting designer who's worked from Las Vegas to Japan and from Nashville's Circle Players to CNN Washington.
Sarah Upchurch, of Smyrna, who's sharing the ingénue Cosette role with fellow senior Kayla Holt, said she's enjoying the opportunity to sing the songs she's been singing since the long family car trips of childhood.
"'Les Misérables' is my favorite musical," said Upchurch, who is majoring in vocal performance and vocal music education and wants to continue teaching music in a high school or elementary setting. "It has a wonderful redemptive story that I love to hear."
Junior vocal performance major Bill Hennings, who is MTSU's Javert, said he loves the show for the same reason. He's performed the role of the judgmental, dogged police inspector before and his character resonates strongly with audiences.
“You can’t look at life and at others with a narrow mind,” Hennings said. “You’ve got to get to know people.”
Spencer Miller, an MTSU vocal performance alumnus who now works at Naxos Music in Franklin, Tenn., is Hennings' roommate and has the same love for the show. He has two roles: Bamatabois, Fantine's violent "customer," and Enjolras, the leader of the student uprising.
"I heard about it because all my friends were auditioning for it," he recalled, adding that he and Hennings convinced their other roommates to audition, too.
"They're not even musical people," Miller said with a laugh, "but we got a very simple song and drilled these four or five guys on it for hours for two or three weeks straight. We came down and auditioned, and all of them got parts in the chorus."
General admission tickets for “Les Misérables” are $10 each. MTSU students, faculty and staff with valid IDs will be admitted free.
"We're just thrilled to be able to offer this production to the community," Bundage said. "There are so many partnerships that brought it together through MTSU Arts, but we're most proud of the preprofessional experience we're offering these students. They are professionals in every sense of the word."