By Tanner Kent
---- — For both Paul Hustoles and the regular patrons of Minnesota State University Theatre and Dance productions, "Les Miserables" is one of the most anticipated shows in the department's history.
As chair of the department, Hustoles surveys season-ticket holders every two years for the shows they'd most like to see at MSU. For the last 29 years — which amounts to 14 surveys — the musical based on Victor Hugo's 19th-century masterpiece has retained the No. 1 or No. 2 slot. On Hustoles' personal wish-list that he has maintained for 40 years, "Les Miserables" has been a fixture since 1987.
Production rights, however, have not been available to collegiate theater departments — at least not until late in 2012. (An edition for K-12 schools was released in 2001.)
Hustoles is on an email alert for theater production rights so he knows the instant that shows become available for staging. When his assistant ran into his office with the alert for "Les Miserables," he didn't waste any time.
"Within two weeks, we were the first college in Minnesota to book it," he said. "For me, ever since I arrived at MSU, I've wanted to do this show. I think our Mankato audience is anticipating it as well."
When MSU opened season ticket sales for this year's Mainstage and Studio seasons, Hustoles said the number of buyers topped 1,000. In addition, he said, the department doubled its single-ticket sales record when single tickets went on sale Sept. 9.
Although this year's theatre season is attractive for both the diversity and novelty of its lineup — the Mainstage season includes three musicals, Shakespeare's "As You Like It" and a visit from MSU grad and acclaimed founder of the Penumbra Theater Lou Bellamy while the Studio season includes a night of original short plays by MSU students — "Les Miserables" figures to be its most memorable.
"We are very excited about the opening," Hustoles said.
Pro at work
During the summer of 2013, still some three months away from debuting “Les Miserables,” Hustoles was agonizing over his choice to play the lead role.
Having waited 25 years for a chance to direct the piece, he naturally wanted his cast to be perfect. Fortunately, Hustoles said, he knew he had the student talent to fill all the roles — except that of Jean Valjean, the French peasant who becomes a redemptive symbol of human love and compassion.
“I’ve seen young actors shred their voices with that role,” Hustoles said of the sung-through musical notorious for its physical and emotional toll on actors. “The vocal demands are so high.”
Occasionally, MSU will bring in a professional actor for a production, typically for a role that is particularly demanding or specialized in some way. Most recently, MSU employed Jared Oxborough, a professional Twin Cities actor, to play the lead male role in "Phantom of the Opera" in April 2012.
When Hustoles decided to advertise the role in national theater publications, video submissions and calls from casting agents poured in. After winnowing the candidates to two in July, Hustoles declared he’d make his final decision in 24 hours.
Neil Dale’s submission came that afternoon and promptly changed Hustoles’ mind.
Dale, a Liverpool native who now resides in California, is a veteran of the “Les Miserables” production that set performance records at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End. He also appeared in the “Les Misérables” 25th anniversary concert in London, and boasts a lengthy list of TV credits.
During his run with “Les Miserables” in the West End, Dale served the “swing” role, playing every character except that of Valjean. The famously dense and emotionally rich musical, Dale said, only became more captivating with repeated performances.
“It’s very easy to keep something fresh when you love something as much as I love this show,” Dale said. “My love for this show has never waned.”
Arriving on campus in mid-September, Dale met a cast that had already been rehearsing for two weeks. Dale said he was impressed by the Ted Paul Theatre as well as the talent level among students and staff.
“We only get four hours a night for five weeks to rehearse,” said Dale, referencing MSU Theatre’s manic production schedule that begins with a series of auditions on the first day of class in August. “The kids have been phenomenal.”
For his part, Dale said he is carefully pacing himself and his voice in preparation for the string of performances that begin Oct. 3 and continue through Oct. 13.
In addition to monitoring his sleeping habits, eating healthy and exercising regularly, Dale carries a silver flask of ginger tea to all rehearsals.
“Even at 43,” Dale said, “I’ve got to build up my strength and stamina.”
All the right notes
Though his role might be one of the most arduous in the production of "Les Miserables," Nick Wayne said he never felt intimidated.
The MSU instructor and music director for the show is responsible for preparing the cast and chorus for sung-through performances that will near three hours in length. The last such singing-intensive work produced at MSU was "Miss Saigon" in 2008, another show Wayne said he relished.
"I look forward to the shows with solid, continuous singing," Wayne said. "To have every component driven by music is very satisfying."
Wayne said he began working on the production last spring and continued between MSU's summer productions. During the first week of rehearsals, which began not long after students auditioned on the first day of classes in August, Wayne was particularly intensive with the cast of nearly 40 students in order to develop a solid musical foundation early on.
Since then, Wayne said it's become apparent that MSU students are meeting the challenge.
"I definitely believe we have the vocal caliber to handle the production," said Wayne, agreeing with Hustoles who was adamant that he would not have booked the production if he wasn't confident students could handle the demands. "That was definitely something we thought about: 'Can we pull it off? Can we sing it? Can we do the score justice?' ... I don't feel like we have a weak link anywhere."
Furthermore, Wayne said Dale's presence among the cast has been invaluable. Praising him as "gracious and collaborative," Wayne said the professional actor has imparted a veteran's wisdom and encouragement to students.
Students gushed when Dale mentioned that he was close friends with superstar stage actor Ramin Karimloo (who is presently preparing to play the role of Jean Valjean in a "Les Miserables" production in Toronto). He surprised them even further when he showed them a text message from Karimloo wishing them success on opening night and welcoming them into the fraternity of "Les Miserables" alumni.
Wayne said Dale's professional manner, attention to detail and commitment to physical health have made an obvious impact on the cast.
"On top of all that," Wayne said, "he's an outstanding singer and actor."
If You Go What "Les Miserables" Set in 19th-century France, Jean Valjean is released from 19 years of unjust imprisonment, but finds nothing in store for him but mistrust and mistreatment. He breaks his parole in hopes of starting a new life, initiating a life-long struggle for redemption as he is relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert, who refuses to believe Valjean can change his ways. During the Paris student uprising of 1832, Javert must confront his ideals after Valjean spares his life and saves that of the student revolutionary who has captured the heart of Valjean's adopted daughter. Performances - 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 3-5 and 10-12 - 2 p.m. on Oct. 5, 6, 12 and 13 Where MSU's Ted Paul Theatre of the Earley Center for Performing Arts Tickets $22 regular, $19 for senior citizens, youth 16 and under and groups of 15 or more, and $15 for current MSU students. Purchase online at MSUTheatre.com, or by calling or stopping by the Theatre & Dance Box Office in the lobby of the Earley Center from 4-6 p.m., Mondays-Fridays; call 507-389-6663.