How do you make an older, much-beloved, much-seen show new and appealing to audiences? Especially when it was done very right the first thousand times?
Well, there's always the tried and true method of lining up a pretty high caliber of stars. In the upcoming Theatre Under the Stars production of Les Miserables that means:
Jean Valjean will be performed by Rob Evan, who starred in the role on Broadway and was most recently seen at TUTS in the 1995 production of Jekyll and Hyde. Evan has appeared in such Broadway classics as Tarzan and Little Shop Of Horrors. His pursuer, Javert, will be played by Robert Hunt, who also starred in the role in the Broadway production and first National Tour of Les Miserables. Hunt was last at Theatre Under The Stars in the role of Freddie in the classic My Fair Lady. Fantine will be portrayed by Andrea Rivette, in her debut performance at Theatre Under The Stars. Rivette has also been in the Broadway productions of Jekyll and Hyde, and Miss Saigon.
An additional ingredient is to bring in projectors and a projection designer -- in this case one Zachary Borovay who alternates between Broadway shows and Las Vegas stagings, (and is the proud father of his first child, Leo, born eight days ago.)
Turns out, Victor Hugo didn't just write really long books (still available today in Spark Notes editions). He also painted and some of these paintings were done specifically in relation to Les Miserables. Borovay, the projection designer for this show, working with the set designer Matt Kinley, used the paintings as a jumping-off point for the backgrounds that appear and then fade away as the play goes on. Or as he tells Hair Balls: "It's an integration of slides or film or video into the scenery so it becomes another layer of the design."
Probably the biggest difference most audiences will experience with this version of Les Miz is that there is no turntable as there was in the original production.
"So much of this show was built around this idea of a turntable, which is the traditional way of doing Les Miz. So I knew we had a lot of places we needed to go in the story. We wanted it to be fluid, but we didn't want it to be a guy walking around on a moving circle the whole time," Borovay says. "And so how do we make things fluid? Well there's a thing we can do called projections, and projections have the ability to be this amorphous fluid thing that can pack a lot of punch and tell part of the story and really kind of disappear when you don't need to have them. We have the ability to go away."
The projection screen is this case is huge, understandable since Les Miz is itself a huge kind of play. The trick, Borovay states, is to keep the audience (trained on the movements they see on a TV screen) interested, without overwhelming what should be the main focus: the actors. "As a society who watches television we're all mostly attuned to looking at the biggest screen with the most moving pictures," he says. "It's always a challenge for any projection designer to make their projections interesting but not the most interesting thing on stage."
Borovay, the son of a set designer, learned the set-design business as he grew up, working alongside his father. About 10 years ago he saw his first play using projection-design techniques and immediately apprenticed himself to everyone and anyone good who was working in the emerging field.
Along with all the other artists who hope theater on Broadway and elsewhere weathers the current economic storm, Borovay says Les Miz is the perfect show for the season. People already know and love the music, he says, and the musical deals with universal issues that still reach out and grab its audiences. "At the same time, we're adding a new skin on it. It's not the same cheeseburger you had 20 years ago."
Les Miserables runs March 24 through April 5 in Houston.
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