High School Thespians Tackle ‘Les Misérables’

At a dress rehearsal on Monday for the East Hampton High School production of “Les Misérables,” Kevin Chabla, left, Vincenzo Salsedo, center, and Brody Eggert proved they were ready for opening night tomorrow. Durell Godfrey

When the curtain rises Friday night on the East Hampton High School production of “Les Misérables,” it will be the culmination of more than three months of intense work for the 80-plus students involved, and on Monday as tech week began, the excitement in the school auditorium was palpable. 

“It is a giant musical undertaking, an entire show of singing and really musically challenging stuff, but we have a really talented cast, some very strong singers that have been working on the stage for many, many years, and we thought it would be a challenge that we were all up for,” said Dylan Greene, the school’s choral director. 

It was that depth of talent that convinced Debbie Mansir, the play’s director, that the students could pull off what she described as “one of the most challenging shows, especially for this age group.” 

“There are only eight lines of spoken dialogue,” she said. “The rest of it is entirely sung.” The teen actors had not only to learn the songs and choreography, but how to convey all the emotions of their characters while singing and dancing. 

Auditions were held in November, and “we started with character development and rehearsals right after Thanksgiving. We knew that this would take a great deal of work, but they really have thrown their whole selves into it,” Ms. Mansir said Monday as the full cast was fitted with microphones for the first time. 

There are 46 student performers, 22 more in the orchestra, and another 15 on the stage crew. 

“Before we even started rehearsing vocally or blocking or anything, we took a great deal of time for character development and to understand the history of what was going on in France in the early 1800s,” Ms. Mansir explained. 

And that’s a lot to grasp for anyone, let alone high school students. In a 1987 article in The New York Times just before its American debut, Leslie Bennetts wrote: “An epic portrait of 19th-century Paris, from its teeming streets and factories to its brothels and sewers, ‘Les Misérables’ encompasses three tumultuous decades of French history and incorporates into its vast scope so many episodes and characters that they are often described as innumerable.” 

It is the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant who serves a 19-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. He breaks parole, is shown mercy by a compassionate bishop, and becomes prosperous in a new life with a new identity, but is forever dogged by the police inspector Javert.  

While there is, indeed, much misery in the story, “the message of the show is extraordinary,” Ms. Mansir said. “Even though Victor Hugo wrote it in the 1860s, the message is still relevant today — from darkness to light, evil to good, despair to deep faith. The power of redemption and forgiveness is so prevalent.” 

The entire cast had the chance to see the version of the musical the school is producing in December at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport. Most had never seen it or even heard of it before, “but they have fallen in love with it,” Ms. Mansir said. 

Jayne Freedman, a founder of the Springs Community Theater and mother of one of the lead actors, is the assistant director. Troy Grindle directs the orchestra. 

“We have an amazing production team,” said Ms. Mansir. She has been involved in dozens of student productions since she started working at the school in 2003, first under Serena Seacat. She has been working with some of the cast members since they were in middle school. Without prompting, each actor who had been in one of her productions before said how glad he or she was to be working with her again. And some, like Jack Hodgens, who graduated from East Hampton in 2011, keep coming back. Mr. Hodgens said he was in “all the musicals, every single one,” and has helped out with fight scene choreography last year and this. 

Aiden Cooper, a sophomore who plays Javert, has had Ms. Mansir as a director since fourth grade. “It’s a really good connection I have with her, and I feel like I can go to her and talk to her about anything,” Aiden said during Monday’s rehearsal. “It’s just a great environment that I love to be a part of. . . . We’re all a family. Whenever something happens or someone’s going through a tough time, you’re always there for each other.” 

Colin Freedman, a junior who plays Valjean, is another veteran student actor, having appeared in every East Hampton High School musical since his freshman year as well as productions at the Bridgehampton School and with his mother’s Springs Community Theater at Guild Hall. This production, however, “is a lot more work,” Colin said. “I’ve never had a part this big. . . . I’ve been listening to the music nonstop. I don’t really have time to not think about the show. I’m always thinking about the show and what I can do to improve.” 

Grace Hosey and Indira Roth, who are freshmen and have appeared in school productions and with Stages, A Children’s Theatre Workshop, both commented on how professional this production seems compared to ones in middle school. 

“This one is a grand play, and it’s a play with a big reputation, and I think we’re doing it some justice,” said Naomi Blowe, a senior. 

“This is one of the most dedicated groups of kids I’ve had the privilege to work with,” Ms. Mansir said. 

“It’s been fun to watch them start to really embody these roles, and to be onstage in costume under the lights it really kind of transforms the whole thing,” Mr. Greene said on Tuesday. An East Hampton graduate himself, like Ms. Mansir before him, he spent a lot of time on the stage during his own high school career. “It’s been really nice to come back and work on the other side of the stage and of the classroom, and, of course, one of my favorite parts of the whole thing is getting to know the kids and watching them grow through the process and over the years. . . . I don’t think that when I was their age I appreciated it as fully as I do being able to see it from this new perspective now. So being able to impart a little of that appreciation and that joy, that excitement, and kind of fuel them in their projects is really great.”

“Les Misérables” will play at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets, which will be sold at the door, cost $20 for adults, $10 for students and senior citizens.

Aiden Cooper, in the foreground, plays the police inspector Javert in the East Hampton High School production of “Les Misérables” this weekend. Durell Godfrey