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At left, Cosette (played by Kira Stammer) and Jean Valjean (Clint Desmond) try to avoid inspector Javert, during rehearsal for "Les Miserables" on Wednesday at the Sherman Center on Dakota Wesleyan University's campus. (Candy DenOuden/Republic)

Les Miserables': 'A monumental production'

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After months of swords, singing and learning lines, it's almost time to hear the people sing.

"Les Miserables," the acclaimed musical, opens this weekend.

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With a cast of more than 70 Dakota Wesleyan students, staff, faculty and community members and children -- and dozens more working behind the scenes with lights, sound and myriad other details -- DWU Theatre Director Dan Miller said more than 100 people are involved in this show.

"This is a monumental production," he said. "The amount of detail required for this production has been incredible and extremely time consuming."

Crew members built a stage and the set in the Sherman Center in the last couple of weeks, Miller said. The last week has been spent on the details that make a show come together.

"There's a lot of moving parts to this show, and we just need to make sure they work smoothly," Miller said. "There's so much that goes into a production."

Most productions have more behind-the-scenes effort than most people realize, Miller said, but particularly this one.

It's the biggest show he's done in his eight years at DWU -- likely the biggest done at DWU, he added -- and a long way from his first show, where he did all the behind-the-scenes work, from set design to sound to lights to box office sales, by himself.

"Because the program is growing, the size of our productions are also going to go up. And the quality is going to increase along with that," he said. "This isn't just a fluke; this is just something that comes along with a growing academic department, and something that comes along with a great relationship with the community and area schools."

Shows are at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday and March 28-29, and at 2 p.m., Sunday and March 30. Tickets are $10 and are available at County Fair Food Store or online at www2.dwu.edu/webstore/events/theatre/LesMiserables.aspx.

As the opening show date nears, Miller said he is two things: "I am extremely excited for people to see this, and I am extremely exhausted," he said.

Based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, the story is set in early 19th-century France, and centers around a French peasant named Jean Valjean and his quest for redemption. Relentlessly hunted by a police inspector named Javert, the story follows Jean Valjean and a slew of characters who are swept into a revolutionary period in France. The novel was transformed into the world's longest-running musical in 1985, and an award-winning musical film adaptation in 2012.

For Clint Desmond, director of choral activities at DWU, as well as the chair of the music department and an assistant professor of music, playing the role of Jean Valjean is a dream come true.

"It's fantastic. It's a lifelong dream," he said during a break from rehearsal recently.

Desmond said "Les Miserables" was the first show he ever saw when he was a teenager. Since then, he's seen it more than a dozen times in several countries and languages -- and it's what inspired him to follow his love of music, and theater.

"It changed my life. It pretty much made me who I am today," he said. "These characters have stayed with me."

His foil throughout the play, Javert, is played by DWU adjunct professor of guitar Jason Zehr, who echoed similar passion for the play and its impact on his life.

Zehr wore out a cassette of the musical in his youth, he said, which he listened to every night. He recalls being about 15 years old, feeling almost suicidal, and being unsure where to turn.

"I felt completely worthless," he said.

Zehr said discovering "Les Miserables" coincided with other key elements in his life -- church involvement among them -- that helped pull him out of what he described as "that silly, worthless phase."

" 'Les Mis' kind of saved my life," he said. "For me, it's a chance of a lifetime. I love it."

It was the 2012 film starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe that really ignited Madi Miller's love for the musical, but knowing her castmates have such storied histories with the play adds extra motivation to perform well.

"I think it definitely carries more responsibility, because you want to make it the best it can be for them," said Miller, who plays Eponine and choreographed three of the songs. Miller is a sophomore communication major at DWU -- and the daughter of Dan Miller -- and agreed with her dad's philosophy that theater can be a way to bridge the community and the college.

"All this talent has come out of the woodwork," she said. "I just love all the relationships I'm building."

And her favorite character in the play?

Eponine.

"I just love how complicated she is. I'm a sucker for dramatic characters," Miller said. "Her situation just fascinates me."

Though not all the players have storied backgrounds with the iconic show, many have been part of rehearsals and preparations dating back to November.

"It's intense," said Mark Puetz, who plays Marius. "It's a lot of work."

Puetz, one of the community members joining with DWU to put on the show, said this is the biggest show he's been in, adding that a show as well-known as "Les Miserables" brings high expectations. And cast members agree it's challenging musically -- nearly every word is sung -- as well as dramatically.

"There's no moment where you can just quit. You can't zone out with this thing," Zehr said. "It's a lot of pressure, a lot of responsibility."

Madi Miller said the final week before shows is often known as "magic week," when everything comes together. Dan Miller said by Wednesday, that magic was evident.

"Magic week happens when people start doing things they don't even realize. They try things, they explore, they become better as actors ... they allow themselves to do more than even what they thought they were capable of," he said. "Magic happens, and we're starting to see that -- and we're going to see that throughout the entire run of the show."

Other principal cast members include:

Fantine -- Lacey Reimintz

Thenardier -- James Van Oort

Madame Thenardier -- Lisa Stanley

Cosette -- Kira Stammer

Enjolras -- Ryan Antaya

Bishop -- Chris Foster

Gavroche -- Cameron Gauger

Young Cosette -- Kiauna Hargens/Reese Reichert

Young Eponine -- Reese Reichert/Kiauna Hargens

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