Theater

Ocean State Theatre Company Re-Imagines a Classic

Ocean State Theatre Company puts a unique spin on Les Misérables this month

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To ring in its first full season in its new Warwick space, Ocean State Theatre Company is starting things off with a bang when it presents Les Misérables from October 2-27. Producing Artistic Director Aimee Turner, who is directing the production, says that being able to kick off a season of big hits with the iconic show's professional regional theater premiere is a dream come true.

“Now we're able to offer musical theater year-round to Rhode Islanders,” she says. “Les Mis was a perfect fit to celebrate that.”

As Aimee mentally worked her way through the season – including Lombardi and All Night Strut – she noticed that, while the musicals weren't necessarily selected pertaining to a certain theme, the shows do have a common thread. “We wanted to tell strong stories, stories that follow a singular path. That's very compelling. The season lineup, particularly Les Mis, was an outcome of wanting to tell great stories,” she says.

Although at the time of her interview, Aimee and company had yet to begin on their journey in rehearsal, preliminary design discussions had been taking place. She says the design team worked hard to reconceptualize the show. “Probably the biggest challenge with producing Les Mis is that so many people are familiar with it in one way or another; you're always challenged by their preconceptions,” she says.

“Along with the challenge, there's the excitement of seeing what we can do to take that expectation and shift it, opening audiences up to a whole new experience,” she adds. Even if you've never been on the Great White Way, you're probably familiar with the basic plot of the story penned by Victor Hugo. It focuses on the dark anti-hero Jean Valjean, who was recently released from prison, where he was for many years courtesy of an ill-received attempt to steal bread to feed his starving relations. His struggles for acceptance and redemption lead him to yearn for a better life – and a different one – but there are a few monkeys that won't get off his back.

“For me, it's a story that struggles with black and white and gray. So many people are taught that everything in the world is either black or white, and I think this really explores the circumstances and decisions that maybe have a lot to do with the in between,” she says. “That's something that's happening right now.”

There were some challenges for OST inherent in the familiarity of the production generally and the ageless nature of the story. Aimee notes that the design team, including set designer Clifton Chadick and costume designer Brian Horton, have come up with a “fresh appearance” for the show; no small feat, considering it just wrapped up its 25th anniversary tour. She says that like OST's rendition of The King and I, the classical material is rendered in such a way that you “still get that sense of grandeur and lushness,” but with a “more focused appearance.”

“My favorite compliment is when patrons say that they didn't think they liked a show, but they loved our version, or when someone says they've seen a show 14 times, but that [seeing it at OST] was a new experience for them,” she says.

In addition to a sleeker set and costume designs taking shape in the 390-seat theater, Aimee says that another major consideration for presenting the show was, of course, the music itself. She says that it was important for her and musical director John Jay Esposito to focus intensely on the voices they're working with and decide how the show will sound, ultimately. The pair decided that they wanted to present the show with a classical bent, which stands in contrast to the “abstract, stripped-down” look of the set. “We cast a lot of classically train singers who have the chops to deliver the songs both in a way people will be familiar with but will also bring their own strengths to the show,” she says.

The cast is another point of pride for Aimee; after a great turnout at auditions, the company found that about two thirds of the actors making up the cast were local talent. While OST typically tries to bring in a mix of talent from the region, New York City and even across the country, Aimee says the plethora of local talent was a nice way to begin the season. “We're very excited about that,” she says.

Les Misérables will be playing October 2–27. 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick 921-6800.