The O’Fallon Progress
Broken dreams, unrequited love, sacrifice, perseverance and redemption, set against the backdrop of 19th-century France. This is not typical fare for a summer youth show.
But this is “Les Miserables,” the world-wide smash hit musical, and it’s being produced by the Goshen Theatre Project, which in its five-year history has earned a reputation for quality shows. They licensed the school edition, which requires no one older than 18 in the cast, no exceptions.
Forty-eight youngsters, ages 7-18, from around the metro-east are cast in the musical, which will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Hettenhausen Center for the Arts at McKendree University in Lebanon.
Typically, the board of directors confronts challenges head on. After all, they presented “The Lion King Jr.” with costumes that not only won an Arts For Life Best Performance Award for Best Costume Design among St. Louis area community and youth theater groups in June, but also drew gasps from its audiences.
However, “Les Miserables” is daunting in normal circumstances. The epic sung-through musical is based on Victor Hugo’s novel and features one of the most memorable scores of all-time. In 1987, it won eight Tony Awards, was nominated for 12, and is the sixth longest running Broadway show in history.
Halli Pattison, who recently graduated from Saint Louis University with a double major in theater and anthropology and a serves on the GTP board of directors, has directed before. During last year’s musical, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” some of the teens in the cast pushed hard for “Les Mis,” as it’s called, to be GTP’s next summer production.
“Oh, it’s real hard,” she said. “The kids were begging for us to do it last year. We found a way to do it (the school edition).”
Pattison said the school edition has only cut five minutes, or less than two pages, she said.
“Our show strives to show the unwavering capability people have to enact change, change in themselves, their circumstances, and the world around them. Jean Valjean in particular is an example to us all. Despite being a convict he changes his hand in life, creates a successful business and finds love for the first time in his life through taking care of someone else’s child, all because a bishop showed him kindness and generosity instead of hatred,” she wrote in her program notes.
“The world needs more people like those found in Les Mis. Ones who choose kindness over cruelty, generosity over selfishness, those who persevere in the face of opposition. But above all, those who choose love instead of hatred,” she said.
Cast includes students from several metro-east locales
Several O’Fallon Township High School students and recent graduates are in leading roles, including Bennett English, who plays Jean Valjean; Nevan Bickel, who plays his nemesis Javert; Natalie Cochran, who plays Eponine; Holden Mast, who is the bishop; and brothers Luke and Jack Stephens, who are in the ensemble. They were all in the OTHS musical “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
High school and middle school students from Troy, Edwardsville, O’Fallon and other towns are involved. Before moving into the Hett for tech week, they rehearsed at First Baptist Church in O’Fallon.
Auditions took place in March, and interest was high — 130 youths tried out. Pattison said they cast 50 and two people dropped. Bickel, who will be a senior at OTHS and plans to study cinematic acting in college, was thrilled to be cast as the villain Javert.
“It’s one of my dream roles. I was super-excited when I got the news,” he said.
English said he has wanted to play the role of Jean Valjean since he was 13. In seventh grade, he watched the movie every night that summer.
He is joined on stage by two of his brothers, Paxton, who plays Gavroche, and Cortland, who plays Feuilly. All three enjoy working together and can be heard singing around the house. “Les Mis” is one of their family’s favorites.
“We hear him sing one of his lines and then we finish it,” Paxton English said.
Several groups of siblings are in the cast besides the English boys and Stephens brothers — Nevan and Riley Bickel, Abigail and Maggie Ankrom, Sophia and Vincent Garavalia and Caitlin and Julia Towell.
Hofeditz of Edwardsville serving as music director
Music director Brad Hofeditz of Edwardsville, a retired teacher who has worked with many schools and theater organizations, has been pleased with this experience. He said this is his 117th show.
“The music is gorgeous. What a story,” Hofeditz said. “This cast is amazing. And they’re good kids, too. I teach them the music, and then tell them something to correct, and the next day they correct it. That’s awesome.”
Such songs as “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” “Bring Him Home,” “One Day More,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” are performed.
Hofeditz said he judges auditions by GBF, or “Goosebumps Factor,” and said English, the leading actor, sang “Bring Him Home” when he auditioned, which produced the goosebumps.
Hodefitz added he enjoys working with Goshen Theatre Project, but says not conducting a live band does take some getting used to.
“It really has been one of the best summers I’ve had working with them. They are also a very organized group,” he said.
Terry Pattison designes sets, costumes for OTHS
Terry Pattison, who designs sets and costumes for O’Fallon Township High School productions and is the president of the GTP group, said she enjoys working with her daughter. A former art teacher, she sketched black-and-white pen and ink drawings to use as part of the set.
She said she was inspired by Joseph Mallord William Turner and Victor Hugo’s own drawings of France. Her drawings were rendered for projection by Halli, who made them into digital files.
They worked on constructing the set and costumes together. At last count, there were more than 210 costumes — the boys each have four outfits, Terry said, and the girls probably average three.
“We don’t sleep in my household,” Halli joked.
Halli has been working out the kinks on stage and emailing notes to the cast. With little things to be adjusted before opening night, she is pleased with the results of their biggest undertaking to date.
“The talent alone is mind-blowing, but their undying love for this show, theater as a whole and most importantly, each other, is inspiring beyond words,” she said.
The Goshen Theatre Project was founded by a group of metro-east educators and produces two productions a year. Parents who wanted to expand performance opportunities for their community pitched in to help.
For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit the website, www.goshentheatreproject.org.