By DON O'BRIEN
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Joe Tokarz couldn't believe it when he found out what kind of production he would be working with as the guest artist for the Quincy Community Theatre's production of "Les Miserables."
A cast of more than 50 actors and a 21-piece orchestra have been in put in place for the QCT's summer production. Tokarz, an Oak Park native, has played the lead role of Jean Valjean in more than 100 productions of the show across the country.
"Those are numbers that I didn't even have an opportunity to work with on the national tour (of Les Miserables)," Tokarz said.
Quincy Community Theatre has decided to make the 400th production in the theater's 91-year history one of its biggest ever. Fifty-three actors, ranging in age from 8 to 82, will work alongside Tokarz. For the first time since the QCT moved into the Oakley-Lindsay Center in 1995, the theater will fully utilize the orchestra pit by removing sections of the stage and elevating musicians so that they are visible to the audience.
Brandon Thomsen, who became QCT's artistic director last month, said preparing for the show, which opens on Thursday, has been a huge undertaking.
"We knew it was going to challenge us like no other show could challenge us," Thomsen said. "We knew it spoke to people in a way that other shows don't. We knew it would bring out a certain type of person who has never auditioned for us or hasn't auditioned in quite a while. We knew it would being them back.
"We were looking to just make things fresh again at QCT. We wanted to get a new batch in here, push ourselves and see how far we can go. So far, it's not easy, but we're getting there and it's really exciting."
Thomsen has been preparing to put on the show for more than a year. He dove into the book and then started watching other productions of the show. He had seen several different versions of the nearly three-hour dramatic musical.
"I learned so much of what not to do from watching other people's productions," Thomsen said.
As a result, QCT's version will have a different look from other productions. Audience members will see just one set but many different props and multiple costume changes by the performers. More than 1,000 pieces of clothing make up the production.
Keeping the set simple was a key part of the plan, according to technical director Paul Denckla.
"We went with a unit set, because of the story and the richness of the characters," Denckla said. "The audience can focus on that rather than elaborate scene changes. This is actually pretty atypical of this show. Nearly every other production of ‘Les Mis' has set pieces moving on and off. We felt it was really important to try the best we could to make sure the story was really engaging for the audience."
The story is set in France between 1815 and 1832. Valjean is released from 19 years of unjust imprisonment but finds nothing but mistrust and mistreatment once he is out of jail. He breaks parole to start a new life but is pursued by police inspector Javert, who doesn't think Valjean can change his ways.
Tokarz was chosen to play Valjean after a national casting call. He has spent most of the last five years performing in different productions of the show, including the 25th anniversary national tour. He has performed the show more than 1,000 times. He said the role of Valjean is "one of the hardest roles in musical theater."
"It's not only physically demanding, it's vocally demanding beyond belief," Tokarz said. "It's emotionally demanding because you're running such a gamut as Valjean from the anger to the love to the compassion to the forgiveness. Everything he has to go through is pretty substantial."
Thomsen is happy to have someone of Tokarz's caliber available to lead the show.
"He knows the show really, really well," Thomsen said. "There isn't much you have to explain to him, but he's so open to a new thought and a new idea."
When: July 17-20, July 24-27; performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday with 2 p.m. Sunday matinees.
Where: Quincy Community Theatre, Oakley-Lindsay Center
Tickets: $22; student rush tickets $10 with a valid ID available 10 minutes before each show.
Information: Call Quincy Community Theatre at 217-222-3209