When Charles Morey directed “Les Misérables” for Pioneer Theatre Company in 2007, “Quite frankly, I was terrified of this monster. It’s huge. It’s long. It’s complex. It’s a big, big piece of theater and hard to do.”
That production, the nation’s first regional theater staging of the acclaimed musical, ran for 82 sold-out performances, becoming the longest-running show in the company’s 51-year history — and resulted in thousands of new season-ticket holders, many of whom had never before stepped in Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre.
Morey retired as the company’s artistic director last year, but returns to helm “Les Misérables," with Karen Azenberg, who assumed Morey’s position, providing the musical staging.
“I loved the show from the first time I saw it, shortly after it opened in New York (in 1987),” Morey says. “I was blown away by the music and the production. The musical is very different from the novel in many ways, but it strikes me how faithful the writers and producer were to the essential spirit to the novel and its fundamental truths.”
It’s been an enriching experience to again direct “Les Misérables,” he says. “It’s been a great joy to rediscover this story in the bodies and the hearts and the voices in this group of people.”
In the company’s original production, William Solo played Jean Valjean and Merwin Foard was Inspector Javert, and both actors reprised the roles they had performed on Broadway. Part of Morey’s pleasure has been working with Joe Cassidy, who plays Valjean, and Josh Davis as Javert.
“Joe Cassidy performed the role on Broadway but only very briefly. So in a way we’re discovering his Jean Valjean as opposed to a re-creation of the original, and that’s very exciting,” Morey explains. “And a lot of this company has never done the show before, and so we’re together rediscovering ‘Les Miserables.’ We’ve tweaked the set a little bit, changed some things that I thought we could do better, re-staging some things that I thought we could do better, and we’ve certainly changed things to fit the actors that we have now. It’s great to be able to re-approach this story recognizing that I know how to stage it, after directing it previously.”
Cassidy also performed on Broadway in other shows, including “Catch Me If You Can,” “Next to Normal,” “Show Boat” and “A Christmas Carol.” Davis’ New York and regional credits include “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” “The Last Five Years” and “Guys and Dolls.”
Morey purposely made the decision to avoid seeing the recent Academy Award-winning film version of “Les Misérables.”
“I did not want it to affect my thinking and have those images so strongly in my head,” he says. “But one thing I was told that is in the film, which I very happily stole for this production, is in the epilogue when the spirit of Epinone returns to Jean Valjean, the Bishop of Digne is reintroduced in the scene. I thought that was a great idea.”
Davis performed in the 2007 production in a less high-profile role, as the villager stuck under a cart whom Valjean rescues.
Kelly McCormick also returns to play Fantine, a role she performed on the first national tour. Local actors in the 34-member cast include Ginger Bess, Mary Fanning Driggs, Justin Ivie, Anne Stewart Mark, Daniel T. Simons and David Spencer, who each performed in the first Pioneer staging.
Since leaving Pioneer Theatre, Morey’s commedia dell’arte “spry adaptation” of the Beaumarchais classic “Le Mariage de Figaro” opened in New York and was named a New York Times Critics’ Pick. He also directed "The 39 Steps" for the Peterborough Players, a company where he was artistic director before joining Pioneer, from 1977-1988.
Morey says returning to Pioneer Theatre “feels like I’m back doing what I’ve done for 28 years. It’s a little different walking into the building and not going up to my old office but going downstairs to the guest director’s office, which is a space I very specifically made sure was included in the renovation plans for the building about 12 years ago. But it does feel great to not have the responsibility of running the entire season. All I have to think about is directing a play.”
But seeing his newly installed portrait in the theater lobby “is a little weird. When I looked at the other portraits, I said to myself, ‘Oh, my. Everyone else in the lobby portraits is dead.’”
If you go
What: “Les Misérables”Comment on this story
Where: Pioneer Theatre Company
When: May 3 - June 1
How much: $42 - $65 in advance and $5 more when purchased the day of the performance
Tickets: 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org