By Bill Hirschman
Warm lights reveal Les Misérables’ principal singers launching with rich unassailable voices into the pleas of “One Day More.” A few chorus members enter the tactile recreation of a grimy Parisian street. Most wear floor-length dresses, elaborate wigs or waistcoats, but some are still in jeans and T-shirts.
It’s only a rehearsal this Monday so the music is just an electronic keyboard, but by Friday’s opening night 10 musicians will be playing live. The sound and lights are still being fine-tuned as ever more actors join the scene.
Finally, 44 performers are marching toward the barricades and destiny as heroic music crests in the Act One finale of a nearly $100,000 production complete with the iconic red flag waving behind a virtual mob and little Gavroche perching atop someone’s shoulders.
Sitting in the dark auditorium, Alvin Entin, who has helped shepherd Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts for 16 years, lets fly a single word. “Amateurs!”
It’s not derision for the work his colleagues are delivering, but a satisfying middle-finger salute to the disrespect that naysayers heap on “community theater.”
Entin is a connoisseur of professional theater who acknowledges the limitations that community theaters struggle with – even their shortfalls and downright failures. But he and these 80-odd performers, designers, crew and volunteers see this production as a rebuke to silence those who dismiss community theater sight unseen.
“We can play with the big boys,” says Entin.
Some may scoff, but Entin has been on a crusade for several years to dispel the third-rate reputation automatically assigned to all community theater, especially that of the 20-year-old PPTOPA. When someone uses the term “community theater,” he said, “the presumption is we put a bunch of stumblebums on stage. Some of these are professional actors. Working for free, but professionals.”
PPTOPA’s chairman of the board virtually snorts. “I don’t think that the community in southwest Broward, our core audience, looks at us as ‘community theater.’ They think we’re professional theater.” That’s not hype: The community’s embrace has been borne out by sold-out houses at the 450-seat Susan B. Katz Theater of Performing Arts at the River of Grass ArtsPark. Last season, its production of Hairspray sold 3,200 tickets.
Les Miz‘s epic scope underscores the company’s long-standing ambitions. PPTOPA has produced The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Producers, Ragtime, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and, in deference to Entin’s abiding love, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.
But this production playing through August 3 breaks new ground for them: a production budget twice that of any earlier show, a huge cast, extensive rented sets and costumes, and an orchestra twice the size of their normal band – ensconced in a miked light booth behind the audience.
Then there is the emotional depth of the show itself. The integrity of this modern classic is jealously guarded by rabid and demanding fans who have seen it done well and done poorly by national tours, high school productions, the 2012 film version, a massive production by Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables in 2009 and now an anniversary production playing in New York.
Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel traverses decades; its underlying theme is whether God exists – and Man’s role in His design. Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel turned their concept album into an arena show in Paris in 1980. Then Herbert Kretzmer, Trevor Nunn and John Caird adapted it for the London stage in 1985, followed by a Broadway opening in 1987.
It’s a sprawling plot to follow for the uninitiated as the reformed criminal Valjean is hunted by the policeman Javert while honoring a vow to shelter an orphaned girl, so Entin is inserting a detailed synopsis into the Playbill.
The complexity underscores that the show is no guaranteed slam dunk, as some troubled productions have proven. Stacey Marino, a co-founder of PPTOPA, feels the challenge as artistic director. “This show is such a tragedy, but… it is a story of a triumph over adversity.”
As with many in the cast, this fulfills a dream that Marino nurtured much of her life since she is doubling as the doomed Fantine. Not only has she read Hugo’s novel, she has been singing Fantine’s power lament “I Dreamed A Dream” since she heard the London cast album when she was 11 or 12. “This is my ultimate everything.”
Ben Sandomir, who plays the revolutionary Enjolras and doubles on matinees as Valjean, wrote in his Playbill bio that he “has starred in Les Miz numerous times in his bedroom and shower. Critics exclaim ‘you’re wasting water!’ ”
That may be part of why this production shows promise: People yearn to be in the show, even non-Equity professionals who might not otherwise get a shot at roles they have coveted. More than 200 people auditioned.
“It’s the show,” said Troy Stanley who plays the villain Thernardier and appeared for pay recently in Boca Raton Theatre Guild’s Pippin and The Plaza Theatre’s Rags. “Not a lot of shows can bring out professionals for a community theatre,” he said, putting quote marks around the words community theater. “But they are attracted by the vocal challenge, the intensity.”
Cassandra Zepeda, who portrays the hapless Eponine, just finished playing in the ensemble of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ staged concert of Zorba and she played Young Cosette in the first national tour that played through Mexico. She said, “If you’re a professional waiting to play this your entire life, it doesn’t diminish your talent” to play the role in community theater.
Still, almost everyone has a day job like Shalia Sakona, a stage veteran who works all day as a litigator for a Miami law firm, then comes to Broward for hours of rehearsal – much of it spent waiting patiently since her adult Cosette doesn’t appear in the first act.
Entin said the talent bar was set higher for this production. “With some shows, you normally have some rutabagas: They walk on, they smile and they walk off. Here they all have characters, they are all working hard.”
Most of the primary roles have been double-cast for the Saturdays with two shows, not so much to give other aspirants a shot, although that’s a benefit, but to save the voices of the people playing the roles.
Leading the company as Valjean is James Cichewicz, who is Stacey’s brother and another co-founder of the company. He has been pursuing a professional career in recent years, including playing the lead this season in The Wick Theatre’s White Christmas. His returning to play Valjean and having Stacey returning as well is a homecoming, he said.
“It’s been 8 years since I performed with them,” Cichewicz said. “A lot of these people are like family. My kids grew up with these people. It’s like a repertory company,” he said.
Entin choked up. “It’s been such a labor of love. We’re coming full circle.”
The only people paid are Cichewicz, the director, the musicians and a retainer paid to longtime musical director Michael Day. But as Sakona said, “That just means you have to be even more passionate to do this.”
Passion is a key element in the company’s pursuit of the project. Les Miz has been on PPTOPA’s wish list almost since day one. The troupe’s long-time president and Les Miz director Keith Kramer asked for the rights annually, In April 2013, the licensing company finally agreed, but PPTOPA’s board then had to think over the fiscal challenge. To ensure the financing would be there, PPTOPA scheduled what it hoped would be three consecutive guaranteed top-selling shows: Hairspray, Man of La Mancha and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
The company located sets and costumes built for a spring production by Broadway Palm dinner theater in Fort Myers. But PPTOPA’s technical director Joe Ferrel had to significantly adapt the sets, and costume designers Josette Gillette and Dana Fredebaugh had to alter the wardrobe.
PPTOPA was created by Florence Andrews, the daughter of a Broadway producer. She helped found another community theater now known as the Main Street Players in Miami Lakes. Then, after moving to Pembroke Pines from Hialeah, she, grandson James and later granddaughter Stacey formed the Pines Players with Paul and Irene Mendelsohn.
The group first produced The King and I at the Walter C. Young Community Center, then Oliver and Fiddler on the Roof. In 1997, Entin and Kramer were recruited to the board, a natural since their children were performing in the shows.
Two events raised its profile. Kramer and Entin soon suggested putting on a straight play for the summer show instead of a musical — Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit The Wind, not frequently produced because a large number of townspeople is required to make the show land right. Attracted by the material, several people auditioned for the first time including professionals. Crowds also showed up in record numbers.
Then, in 2001, Cichewicz starred in Frank Wildhorn’s musical Jekyll and Hyde, earning not just sell-out crowds but praise from the Sun-Sentinel’s late critic Jack Zink, who began praising the company around the community.
In recent years, PPTOPA board members have modernized the business operation and attracted corporate and municipal support after some crippling downturns. Since then, PPTOPA has worked hard to stay financially solvent and up-to-date, creating an online ticketing system and buying a new sound board.
Even as standards are raised, PPTOPA still keeps a place on the casting roster and the crew list for loyal folks who have supported them since the early days, finding at least small parts that allow them to keep their hand in. It’s a tight family in which many wear to rehearsals the black T-shirts with logos of past shows they’ve served.
Still, earning respect as a community theater has been a tough sell in a region where even professional theater has had to claw its way into hard-won recognition. But community theater has been a staple in South Florida at least as long as professional theater. Lake Worth Playhouse, one of the oldest theater companies of any kind still operating in the state, was incorporated in 1953.
The strength of community theater is, of course, that it can produce shows that are cost-prohibitive for all but the best-heeled companies. In some cases, that means companies like PPTOPA can revive large cast shows that are otherwise rarely done such as The Best Man – shows that otherwise are relegated to high school productions.
But the casts can only rehearse at night and weekends from 7 to 10 p.m. – people have to work or go to school the next day. Where a professional company usually gets no more than 2 ½ weeks rehearsal of eight- and 10-hour days, this Les Miz has been in rehearsal since May 15. Actors often master their material at home.
No one pretends that some productions are not less accomplished. In some offerings throughout South Florida, some actors are markedly more skilled than others, with many clearly “acting” rather than inhabiting their parts. In the case of musicals, some performers with strong voices are not particularly convincing actors or they lack much charisma. Finding a corps of dancers who can master more than rudimentary moves is a challenge.
But community theater also provides a training ground for young people who have gone on to do Carbonell-nominated work or have become mainstays of professional companies including Jeanne Lynn Gray, Melanie Lieber, Rick Pena and Kaitlynn O’Neill. Not to mention Cichewicz.
No one deludes themselves, either, that PPTOPA’s production will outshine the one planned for the Maltz Jupiter Theatre next season with a budget three or four times larger and a cast drawn from New York auditions.
But on Monday, the pride of the PPTOPA company shone brighter than the spotlights on Troy Stanley cavorting through “Master of the House.”
No one was prouder than Entin: “We’ve been dedicated to do it better, where we can be proud of everything we do.”
Les Misérables by the Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts plays July 11-Aug. 3 at the Susan B. Katz Theater of the Performing Arts at the River of Grass ArtsPark, 17195 Sheridan Street. Performances 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Tickets generally $14-$24, except Friday July 11h when theater industry professionals pay $12; family night on Saturday, July 12h, when admission is $15 a person; senior matinee Saturday afternoon of July 26h when admission is $15 for seniors; and a special “wine and dine” Italian buffet dinner with a show when tickets are $25-$35 on Saturday July 19h. For more information visit www.pptopa.com or call (954) 437-4884 or (877) 477-8672.