When I first heard that Oshkosh’s historic Grand Opera House was going to be featuring performances of Victor Hugo’s LES MISERABLES in March 2014, I really didn’t believe it. From the original book, to the Broadway play, to the 2012 movie version, LES MIS has always been big, big, BIG! The Grand on the other hand, is cozy, intimate, and classic. I just had to know how they were going to pull it off, and who “they” were.
Originally published in 1862, Hugo’s LES MISERABLES is an extraordinary tale of love, hardship, and redemption, set in the period leading up to the spark of the French Revolution. The story follows the life of Jean Valjean, a poor man imprisoned and forced to work 19 years of hard labor for merely stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. Upon his release, he is branded a convict, and is mercilessly pursued and harassed by his nemesis, Inspector Javert. The incredible plot twists and turns centered around these two adversaries spans the years 1815-1832, intertwining the lives of a vast and varied cast of interesting emotionally-rich characters, in a multitude of time periods and locations. The scope and scale of Victor Hugo’s tale is what makes LES MIS such an enduring heartfelt story of humanity at its best, and worst, and is also why it is such an enormous undertaking to bring to the stage.
Enter, Hysterical Productions…the Oshkosh-based, savvy theatre troupe that was up to this monumental task. They invited me to one of their rehearsals, and as I sat in middle of The Grand like a fly on the wall, I was able to catch a glimpse of how they were going to bring the monstrous musical to our fabulous hometown theater.
Something I noticed right away was how well the Hysterical Productions team worked together. Unlike your typical “community theatre” group, these folks moved like clockwork. Their lines were already memorized, blocking was being finalized, fights choreographed, notes given, music cues checked, production details discussed, and they ran the entire prologue twice…all within the short hour and a half I was there.
The way that Hysterical Productions’ Creative Director, Angela O’Donnell, and her team attacked their duties was truly impressive, and fun too. After talking further with Angela, Assistant Director Amanda Petersen Fails, Stage Manager Frank Tower, and Grand Director/Actor Joe Ferlo, I was confident that Victor Hugo’s masterpiece and its historic lineage were in very capable, passionate, caring hands.
I am sure that all who will attend the March 2014 performances will be blown away by the power and magnitude of LES MISERABLES, nestled in the gorgeous Grand Opera House, creatively reworked by the talented folks from Hysterical Productions.
OS-What can spectators expect to see from Hysterical Productions version of LES MIS compared to other “community theatre” productions?
AO-Oshkosh, and the Fox Valley, are packed with what we like to call “citizen artists.” These are people who trained in performance, acting, lighting design, dance, stage combat, etc., but have chosen to settle outside the “big city.” Hysterical Productions gathers those performers who want to use that training, and create their art in a regional theater setting. We honed our craft in the same ways as your favorite Broadway belter, but made home here to have a family as well.
OS-How and why did you decide to form Hysterical Productions? How are you folks different from other local theatre troupes?
AO-Hysterical Productions grew from a gig we landed at the Grand Opera House 4 years ago called the “Spirits of the Grand Tours.” The goal was to share the history of the Grand in a very entertaining, unique, and immersive way. We love history, we love stories, interesting characters, the dark secrets, and unifying triumphs that all humans relate to. As a company, we want this community to share in those stories, and to take those journeys together.
OS-How many people are officially involved/in charge of Hysterical Productions?
AO-Hysterical Productions has three founders…myself, as Artistic Director and board president, Patrick O’Donnell is our Production Manager, and Amanda Petersen Fails is our Events and Bookings Manager. The three of us are alumni of UW-Stevens Point’s BFA program and reconnected a few years ago in this area.
OS-What is your training and background in theatre?
AO-I like to say I’ve been on and back stage for longer than I can remember, and it’s not a joke. In youth, it was the local theatre and dance companies, performing and stage management, student directing, and assistant teaching workshops. I trained for my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting at UW-Stevens Point, as well as studying arts management. Eventually, I toured with the Missoula Children’s theater, and spent time performing and directing at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. We have at least 10 people involved in this production with professional training and experience.
OS-When did you start pre-production for the March performances?
AO-Pre-production for LES MISERABLES started over a year ago. Securing the rights was an important and timely matter, putting together a solid and qualified production team came next. After that, I added a concept and vision and off we went into auditions-in May of 2013. It’s been well worth the extended efforts. Our actors have come into rehearsals completely memorized, our scenic design has been plotted, and we have wonderful bits of their talent and skills to show audience members.
OS-I can see that history is very important to this group, not only theatrically, but from a world history stance. What have you done to teach your crew about the time and setting of LES MISERABLES?
AO-To understand how the world was different in early 19th century France, we put the cast and crew through mini-school. They had a fun lecture from a history professor, as well as compare and contrast the musical to the novel talk with our Assistant Director, Amanda Petersen Fails.
OS-LES MIS is usually an enormous stage production. How did you conceptualize/envision it in a smaller historic facility like The Grand?
AO-Victor Hugo created some amazing sketches that really struck a chord with me. There were such dream like elements to them, the semi-corporeal mixed with the stark and clear. That is a concept we’re focusing on for this production, especially for a show with so many locations and time periods. Between these moments of hazy memory and sharp beams of clarity you’ll find very raw and simple acting, nods to the original staging, homages to the book, and as much justice done to the suffering, brave and redeemed people of 1832 France. It’s all the moving parts you’re used to with a twist of realism, and an intimate and historical ambiance.
FRANK TOWER-STAGE MANAGER/CO-PRODUCER
OS-What are some of the exciting stagecraft and technical challenges involved with this show?
FT-A production LES MISERABLES is always a huge undertaking. For the Hysterical Production we will be employing numerous pieces of moving scenery, some flown, others moving, and the largest will be our revolving stage. The challenges are numerous as you can imagine. Once Angela O’Donnell, our director, shared her wants for this epic undertaking, it was up to our production team to design, construct and coordinate all of the moving parts to meet her vision.
OS-LES MIS is usually an enormous stage production; what changes do you plan on making, and how will the show be different in a smaller historic facility like The Grand?
FT-The entire production team was quite adamant little be sacrificed when translating this production into our space at The Grand. We simply needed a way to compress all that LES MIS is and can be into the space available. We use the intimacy of The Grand to draw the audience into an incredible story.
As much as this production can be in scale and scope, it is really about people and their relationships. No amount of gunfire, stage lighting or singing will overcome the audience if it doesn’t identify with and embrace the characters.
OS-How many other people are involved in technical production of this show?
FT-We have about a dozen people working behind the scenes on the technical aspects of the show. This includes the actual people working back stage as well as those supporting the design and construction of the set, costumes, properties, etc.
OS-What are some sound/lighting challenges you are facing?
FT-Angela’s vision for the production, given the intimate space, is to immerse the audience. I don’t want to give too much away (you have to come see the show!), but much of the challenge with sound and lighting revolved around putting the patron in the middle of the action. The other big challenge is simply the sheer scale of LES MIS. We have thirty people on stage, all individually mic’d, combined with hundreds of lighting and sound cues.
OS-I’ve been told that there will be some enormous fight scenes, gunplay, and cannons in this production. How will you be tackling that?
FT-Safety, proper training and regular practice are paramount any time staged violence takes place. One of our production team, Patrick O’Donnell, is trained specifically in stage combat. He has worked with our actors and the balance of the production team carefully choreographing fight sequences. We have designed times for actors to review and practice their sequences. They look great and are completely safe! This production will use firearms and effects created for use on stage in a theatrical environment with training provided by myself and another experienced production team member. We have all of the bang, in a way that’s safe for actors and audience.
OS-How is working with Hysterical Productions different from other local theater troupe experiences for you?
FT-Every theatre group is different with its own dynamic. Hysterical is different in a couple different regards. First, there is much emphasis placed on storytelling of historical significance. For this particular production, quite a bit of time was spent on understanding the history of LES MISERABLES and character backgrounds. A majority of the core company members have their degrees and training in theatre. This leads to a heightened level of expected production quality – something we know our audience will appreciate!
JOE FERLO-DIRECTOR OF THE GRAND/GUEST ACTOR (JEAN VALJEAN)
OS-How is this show bigger and better than anything like it that has been done at The Grand in past years?
JF-The company made a huge investment, both financially and artistically, in this project. In addition to the large-scale investment in scenery, special effects, and music, it’s the directorial vision of taking all this emotion, and the real-life stories of LES MIS, and putting the audience right in the middle of it. Taking a show as epic and emotional as LES MIS, and “compressing” it into a hall as intimate as The Grand, is a little like shaking a can of soda. You can feel the power of the story, even in the early stages of rehearsal.
OS-You mentioned to me that this just may be The Grand’s “show of the year.” Can you elaborate on this?
JF-One of the reasons this show is an anchor-point of The Grand’s season, is the commitment by a local organization to a show with such high production expectations. As a presenter, I’d never be able to bring a tour of LES MIS to our hall. Tours are geared to large-scale performing houses, and even if the economics would permit it (they don’t), the show would simply never fit on the stage, the way it’s set up to tour. This project allows us to see what can happen when a grand-scale production is done “Grand-scale.” It’s a win for the audience, who get to see the epic LES MIS at a fraction of the cost of a touring production.
OS-Can you explain what it’s like using the music program Sinfonia to provide the score for LES MIS? What has your experience been using it thus far? Why is it good for productions like this?
JF-This is the third production I’ve done with the Sinfonia OrchExtra digital system. As you know, I’m a musician as well, and it took a long time to convince me that this sort of accompaniment is viable. This system uses actual musicians, digitally recorded, so the sound is truer (and somewhere in the process, musicians were in fact paid for their talent). It’s a “playable” instrument, with the ability to follow singers under the baton of a music director, in this case the talented Herb Berendsen. Even if we had the availability of musicians for this show, The Grand’s vaudeville-sized orchestra pit could not accommodate them. This system gives the audience a chance to enjoy this production with the full and rich sound of an orchestra, while once again accounting for the space limitations of the venue.
OS-I understand that you will also be playing the lead role of Jean Valjean?! You wear so many hats at The Grand. Can you explain how you got tapped for the role, and what it is like to manage so many responsibilities at once?
JF-Ironically, when asked to take on the role, I had never seen LES MIS. The original production never moved me, as it always seemed to be “sung” rather than “acted.” As Angela explained her idea, which emphasizes the acting element as much as the singing, I absolutely fell in love with the concept as well as the challenge. As a performer, it’s the most intense singing – and acting role I’ve ever attacked. And that alone is exciting. Plus, I have this great opportunity to work with some of the amazing citizen-artists in our community that I’m always raving about. As for the “hats,” it really sits separate from my work as Director of The Grand. We all have hobbies. Some people golf. Some play video games. Others do crafts. I don’t. I perform. My hobby just happens to be at the same place that I work.
OS-What are your hopes for the future concerning shows like this at The Grand, and for future performances by Hysterical Productions?
JF-Anything that highlights the amazing citizen-artists of our community is a win for The Grand. We have an incredible inventory of quality actors, singers, instrumentalists, and writers in our community – professional quality people who have chosen to live here. We’ve enjoyed their work for years here at The Grand, through the Oshkosh Community Players, the Oshkosh Symphony Orchestra, and more recently the artists at afterWALK, and in the Grand Lounge shows. Hysterical Productions is the latest of these organizations. Highlighting and celebrating our regional citizen-artists may well be the future of this venue, and certainly I hope for all of these groups to continue to create and share their talents here at The Grand.
Kurt Stein is a musician, performer, music educator, writer, thinker, and Oshkosh Renaissance man.Cover photograph by Rasha Deluliis (Scene), title image and actor photography by Thompson Photo Imagery.
HYSTERICAL PRODUCTIONS, INC. presents
BOUBIL and SCHÖNBERG’S
Grand Opera House—Downtown Oshkosh
Rated Theatre PG
March 7-8, 7:30 p.m.
March 9, 2:00 p.m.
March 13-15, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: call (920) 424-2350 or (866) 96-GRAND or purchase online at www.grandoperahouse.org
For more information about Hysterical Productions, visit www.hystericalproductions.com