'Les Misérables'— without the songs 

click to enlarge Pictured above in "The Three Musketeers" from 2021, Kesha Sharee and Joey Chacon play Fantine and Jean Valjean respectively in ORT's "Les Misérables." - PHOTO BY ANNETTE DRAGON
  • PHOTO BY ANNETTE DRAGON
  • Pictured above in "The Three Musketeers" from 2021, Kesha Sharee and Joey Chacon play Fantine and Jean Valjean respectively in ORT's "Les Misérables."
At this point, Claude-Michel Schönberg’s 1980s musical adaptation of the classic Vic tor Hugo novel “Les Misérables”—which follows ex-con Jean Valjean on his road to redemption in a tumultuous Paris in the years after the French Revolution—is a fixture in pop culture.

After the enduring success of the original West End and Broadway productions, the star-studded 2012 film version featuring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway brought the music drama to a whole new generation of fans.

Rochester’s Open Road Theatre is presenting a different version entirely—a full-length play adapted by Tim Kelly and drawn from the novel, directed by Karen Dieruf.

click to enlarge Joey Chacon as Jean Valjean and Jahaka Mindstorm as Javert duel in rehearsal for Open Road Theatre's production of "Les Misérables." - PHOTO BY NICOLAS SAMPER
  • PHOTO BY NICOLAS SAMPER
  • Joey Chacon as Jean Valjean and Jahaka Mindstorm as Javert duel in rehearsal for Open Road Theatre's production of "Les Misérables."
Dieruf, who is Open Road Theatre’s producing artistic director, says several questions are at the heart of the play: “What is justice?” “Who is a true hero, and who is a false one?” “Can one person make a difference?”

Audiences can expect Open Road Theatre’s production to feature a diverse local cast including students and seasoned thespians alike.

For Joey Chacon, who plays the protagonist Valjean, performing in a non-musical version of the story helped him to see his character differently than he had in the past.

“I always viewed Valjean as the ultimate good guy,” said Chacon, who is Latinx. “But then I see playing him more fatherly I suppose. I kind of missed that in my initial viewings and readings of it.”

Jahaka Mindstorm, who is Black, plays opposite Chacon’s character as his nemesis, police inspector Javert who is obsessed with bringing Valjean to justice once and for all.

But Mindstorm thinks it’s a mistake to view Javert as a villain.

“He's definitely the antagonist, but I don't think Javert is a villain,” he said. “In the story itself, he really commits no crimes. He's obsessed with the idea of catching this one guy.”
click to enlarge Joey Chacon dodges Jahaka Mindstorm as they rehearse a fight scene in "Les Misérables." - PHOTO BY NICOLAS SAMPER
  • PHOTO BY NICOLAS SAMPER
  • Joey Chacon dodges Jahaka Mindstorm as they rehearse a fight scene in "Les Misérables."

Mindstorm also says Javert’s lack of empathy, ironically, is what helped him to be more understanding of his fascistic character. ”Some of us, especially in military service, get so caught up with the bindings of duty,” he said, “and what you’re supposed to do and what is right—or what’s indoctrinated into you as being right—that you can lose sight of the opposition’s personhood.”

Audience members used to hit songs such as Valjean’s heartfelt ballads “Bring Him Home,” Javert’s final confrontation with Valjean, and the cathartic “Do You Hear the People Sing?” will get a different take on the classic story.

“If they go in expecting to see the musical version with just words, then they may be a little confused,” said School of the Arts student Patrick McGrath, who plays the idealistic Marius. “But the plot points, the same basic story, and the characters are all very similar.”
click to enlarge Allana Jackson, pictured above in last year's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," plays Cosette in ORT's "Les Misérables." - PHOTO BY ANNETTE DRAGON
  • PHOTO BY ANNETTE DRAGON
  • Allana Jackson, pictured above in last year's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," plays Cosette in ORT's "Les Misérables."

Dieruf says in the play version, the characters aren’t reduced to the songs they sing, but presented as fleshed-out characters who have real human experiences and not just contrived scenes that culminate with singing.

“I’ve had several people in the cast and the designers say they find it really refreshing, that it fills in a lot of empty pockets that the music can’t because it’s a song,” she said.

Founded in 2004, Open Road Theatre got its start in Boston before Dieruf moved to Rochester and began producing local productions in 2017.

Open Road is named after a line from the first play the non-profit ever produced, “The Wind and the Willows,” when the character Toad leads a caravan of animal friends on an adventure.

“Our company goes further than that, and says ‘everyone is welcome to walk down the open road with us,’” Dieruf said.

ORT’s focus is to tell classic stories coupled with new approaches to casting that embrace diversity of background, ethnicity, age, and identity.

“There's just such ingrained perception amongst all of us — we're all guilty of this — to assume that all these classic stories are for white people and white casting,” Dieruf said. “ And it's not true. It's a wrong perception that the Open Road Theatre wants to shatter.”

The production opens Thursday, June 1 at 7:30 p.m. and runs through Sunday, June 4 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $17 in advance at muccc.org, or $20 at the door.

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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