Local actors take center stage with ‘Les Misérables’
One of the most popular musicals in the world is coming to the stage in Duluth next week — and four Carlton County actors will be a part of it. For the first time ever, The Duluth Playhouse, The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra and the Minnesota Ballet will share the stage for Duluth’s largest arts collaboration ever as they present “Les Misérables” Wednesday through Saturday, July 16-19.
Actor Drew Autio said his reason for auditioning for the stage spectacular was a no-brainer.
“Because the music and story are one of the best, and it’s one of the most beloved musicals of all time,” he attested.
“Les Misérables” takes place in 19th Century France, when society is in a state of flux and talk of revolution is in the air. Recently released from prison, Jean Valjean finds himself in a search of personal change as he breaks his parole in an attempt to walk the path of redemption. He is relentlessly pursued by Police Inspector Javert, who refuses to believe Valjean can change his ways. The drama and the unforgettable musical score have proven unforgettable for theater crowds over the years.
Autio, who started acting his freshman year playing a pickpocket in the fall production of “Oliver!” at Cloquet High School, will play multiple parts in “Les Misérables” as part of the men’s ensemble.
“[Being a part of the ensemble case] is very much two complete opposite sides of the coin,” he explained. “I start off the show playing one of the constables (Javert’s henchmen) and then I play one of the students in the second half.”
Autio’s acting background has prepared him well for this once-in-a-lifetime performance. After appearing in the fall musicals all four years in high school, he auditioned for his first Duluth Playhouse show, “M*A*S*H” in the summer of 1999. After that he took a break from acting for several years before auditioning for “West Side Story” at the Playhouse and being cast in the pivotal role of Tony. After that, he said he has been performing almost constantly at The Duluth Playhouse and has also performed in several operas with LOON (Lyric Opera Of the North).
Fellow cast member Greg Anderson, 1995 graduate of Cloquet High School, is a seasoned actor as well. He has acted, directed, written for about 80 shows in the Twin Ports over the years and holds a bachelor’s degree in theater from the University of Wisconsin-Superior and also serves on the board of the County Seat Theater Company in Cloquet.
For Anderson, also a part of the men’s ensemble in the upcoming production of “Les Misérables,” this particular performance is extra special for him.
“‘Les Mis’ is such a powerful and challenging show,” he said. “I’ve seen it live and it’s INTENSE. I love the book by Victor Hugo and the music for this show is fantastic. I leapt at the chance to audition.”
Anderson said he will have the opportunity to play several roles as part of the men’s ensemble, with a wide range of attitudes “from heroic to despicable.”
“The chorus is such an important element to grounding this story, and I’m honored to be a part of it!” he said.
Esko music teacher Beth Anderson, part of the women’s ensemble cast, will play the bishop’s wife in the prologue, the wig lady, a nun caring for Fantine, and one of the poor people. She said she caught the acting bug in high school and has been doing it ever since.
“As a teacher, I am often the music director for shows,” she said, “so I am enjoying my chance to be on stage rather than behind the scenes this time.”
And for that chance in the spotlight, Anderson said she picked a dandy.
“‘Les Mis’ is a wonderful story and I’ve loved it since I saw it in London during college,” she explained. “To have a chance to be in a production is amazing!”
That type of chance does not come with some trepidation, however.
“Auditions were like nothing I’ve ever seen around here,” admitted Greg Anderson. “Hundreds of people came out, and everyone was trying to make an impression in a short time.”
“Auditions are always a bit nerve racking just for the fact that in some capacity you are being judged,” he said. Autio.
Add to that the fact that auditioning for such a popular production represented a multi-phase process.
“The audition process started with an individual singing audition and then I was fortunate enough to be called back,” Beth Anderson related. “The second audition was with a group of very talented ladies singing sections of the ‘Lovely Ladies’ and ‘Turning’ songs from the show.”
One of the youngest members of the cast of “Les Misérables,” Washington Elementary’s 10-year-old Sam Buytaert, is arguably among the most experienced (at least for his age). He began acting at the age of 6. He played the role of Oliver in the Cloquet High School performance of the same name and also performed in CHS’s “Seussical the Musical,” as well as “When Silence Was Golden” and “Fidgety Fairytales” at County Seat Theater and in the ensemble cast of “Fame Junior” at the Duluth Playhouse. He took singing lessons from Gail Hamre and Carla Goldschmidt from the ages of 7-9
“I really like musicals,” said Buytaert, “because they both singing and acting.”
And so, when Buytaert and his mom, Katy, were looking at The Duluth Playhouse’s website earlier this spring and saw the notice about auditions for “Les Misérables,” he never hesitated.
“I decided to give it a try!” he declared.
He landed the dual roles of a street urchin and the understudy for the primary youth role of Grantaire.
He said he’s watched the movie of “Les Misérables” many times, and he’s thrilled about the chance to take the stage in the local production.
“I’m really excited about it,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of new people. It’s really been fun and I’ve learned a lot about a whole lot of new stuff.”
The cast has been rehearsing together since mid-May, first on the music (which Beth Anderson said is “a huge challenge on its own!”) and then adding staging starting in June. Lately they’ve been hitting the rehearsal stage at the University of Minnesota Duluth almost every night from 6-10 p.m., with dress rehearsals running throughout the rest of this week and the beginning of the next, up until the Wednesday premiere.
“Rehearsals have been awesome!” exclaimed Autio. “As we add more and more stuff , it’s becoming a little more complicated, with costume changes and set movements. But even at its most complex, I’ve enjoyed every minute working with the creative team and cast!”
Even to seasoned theater veterans like Greg Anderson, this particular production is one-of-a-kind.
“Rehearsals have been like no other show I’ve been a part of,” he said. “From Day One, we were expected to hit the ground running with the music, and I love that professionalism. Our director, Dottie [Danner], is a lot like a painter trying to allow the canvas to reveal the final picture layer-by-layer.The sets and costumes are fantastic. There’s a lot of work put them, and it shows. Even though the nights are getting longer and pressures are mounting in preparation for next week, there’s already a great sense of accomplishment and anticipation. I’ll be sad when this is over, and I’ll treasure the experience.”
Beth Anderson shares the same degree of enthusiasm.
“Our director, Dottie, is remarkable,” she agreed. “It’s hard to describe the process through which she has created the story on stage. There are a million details that she has put together and each of us is like a small pixel that fits into the big picture. It’s busy, chaotic, and I love every minute of it!”
To be sure, New York guest director Danner comes with some mighty impressive credentials (the likes of family members Bythe Danner and her daughter Gwyneth Paltrow). As a performer, she has appeared in nine Broadway shows as well as numerous TV variety shows and several films. She has also directed some 200 productions throughout the world.
Perhaps Beth Anderson summed it up best.
“I think the audience will have a magical night when they come to see this show.”
For tickets, go to duluthplayhouse.org or the box office of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. Each night’s performance will take place at 7:30 p.m.