The story of “Les Miserables” is filled with heartache, struggle and tragedy.
Prisoners are sentenced to hard labor for stealing to feed their starving families. A desperate mother sells her hair and becomes a prostitute to provide for her illegitimate daughter. Students revolting against the treatment of the poor are brutally killed.
But through the dark themes of the musical, the talents of a group of young actors shines through. Their singing is passionate and moving; their acting precise and full of emotion.
“It’s been a beautiful experience to see,” said Kathy Phipps, founder of Agape Performing Arts Company, which is staging the show. “We’re really coming together as a team to take on this monumental effort.”
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Agape, a Greenwood-based theater company, will tackle “Les Miserables” as its spring performance. Young actors will tell the story of Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine and others in the sprawling musical based on Victor Hugo’s tale of sacrifice, poverty, rebellion and love in early-1800s France.
Cast members have been working for more than two months to prepare for the show, which runs April 6 to 9. Hours of memorizing lyrics, blocking and key scenes have gone into rehearsals, and as the musical has come together Phipps has a hard time believing that this is only the third performance for the theater company.
“It’s been such an amazing blessing to see what’s happened in literally one year,” Phipps said. “It’s been a great deal of hard work, and it wouldn’t be possible without the parents who have partnered with me and people who have worked so hard just because they believe in the value of fine arts on the southside.”
Agape Performing Arts Company was founded in early 2016, though its roots stretch back many years in Johnson County. After Phipps formed a theater program at Center Grove Church, she saw that a need existed for youth theater programs in the area.
More and more young actors were signing up to take part — audition sign-ups grew from 30 the first show to more than 200 — and Phipps worked with Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church to start Agape.
“Agape” is a Latin term for unconditional, sacrificial love, and that speaks to the foundation of the theater program’s mission. The goal is to create a community where all performers are valued because they are children of God, and to help performers grow in confidence and character, Phipps said.
The company had its debut performance last June, staging the children’s version of “Into the Woods.” An Americana-tinged musical show “Sing Down the Moon” in December challenged the troupe with a different style and tone of performance.
But even from the start, staging “Les Miserables” has been a goal, Phipps said. The idea to tackle it had come from Fr. Mike Keucher, associate pastor who had been an early supporter of starting the theater company at the church.
As Agape was forming, he mentioned to Phipps that he wanted “Les Miserables” to be one of the first shows the troupe did.
“It’s an unusual third show, because we’re a new group, and it’s a big show,” Phipps said. “But the message is so beautiful. It’s such a beautiful story that it’s been worth all the effort.”
Phipps has been planning the shorter school version of the show since November, and the cast started rehearsing in January. The 70 actors who make up the cast have met three times a week since then to memorize their lines and the lyrics, work on their blocking and meld this massive production together.
“Many of the young people auditioned for the show because they love the show,” Phipps said. “Many of them came in with a real familiarity with the music. We had a sing-through in January that was extraordinarily exciting, because most of the leads knew their music pretty well. Everyone was looking around with such excitement.”
Samantha Koval had worked with Phipps before, and was encouraged by her former director to try out for “Les Miserables.” Though she knew the story and songs of the musical, Koval wasn’t interested at first.
But the 18-year-old Mooresville resident auditioned, and she felt at home in the troupe.
“I’ve been astounded by the amount of talent that everyone in the cast has. I’m in awe listening to them. This is by far the most talented group of people I’ve been a part of,” she said. “This group really emphasizes the camaraderie and fellowship of a cast getting to know each other, which really makes the show itself even better.”
Koval will be portraying Fantine, the impoverished factory worker who turns to prostitution to support her illegitimate daughter. Tackling such an intense role has been a challenge for Koval.
“Personally, I can’t relate to that lifestyle, so it’s been harder to portray someone who’s so devoid of all hope. But what I admire about her is she doesn’t ever give up. She could have given up her daughter because it was more convenient for her, but she doesn’t,” Koval said. “It’s been a blessing to portray her, and hopefully I can impact others through an accurate portrayal of her misfortunes.”
Musical director David Turner has been charged with guiding the Agape actors through the iconic musical selections. Compared to other performances that he’s been a part of, this is something more grand.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever done. I’ve done at least 10 other community productions in the past, and they’ve all been your traditional musicals. Nothing of this magnitude. So it’s been a big undertaking,” he said.
Besides the scope of the show, “Les Miserables” will also offer a new opportunity for Agape in terms of the performance space.
With such a large cast and a vast performance, organizers needed to find a more spacious venue than Our Lady of the Greenwood’s Madonna Hall, where past shows have been staged. Phipps uncovered the perfect location in McGowan Hall, a historic Knights of Columbus facility north of downtown Indianapolis.
“For a show as large as ‘Les Miserables,’ there’s no way we could have done it here at Madonna Hall,” Phipps said. “It was such a God thing: They were looking to bring more cultural events into the space, and we were looking for a new venue. It was a win-win situation.”
A volunteer production staff of parents have provided support creating costumes and sets for the show. Using crowdfunding, Agape was able to raise $3,589 for a unique projection system to serve as the backdrops for the show.
Victor Hugo’s watercolor illustrations from the novel will be projected on an 18-by-20-foot screen.
“With the venue, there’s hardly any backstage area. We just don’t have room for a lot of scenery, so to be able to have each scene set with these beautiful watercolors, I can’t wait to see it all come together,” Phipps said.
- April 6, 7:30 p.m.
- April 7, 1 and 7:30 p.m.
- April 8, 7:30 p.m.
- April 9, 3:30 p.m.
Where: McGowan Hall, 1305 N. Delaware St., Indianapolis
Who: Put on by Agape Performing Arts Company, a Greenwood-based theater troupe that has brought together a cast of 70 for the performance.
Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for children, $15 for premier VIP seats