BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Susan Johnson's evenings are full of drama, and not the typical kind that comes along with family life.
She packs dinner several days a week, bundles up her toddler and infant, picks up her other two kids after school and makes the grueling drive from Frankfort to Traverse City.
There, she drops off daughter Hannah, 8, and son Jaden, 10, at the Old Town Playhouse for a Young Company rehearsal, after which she and the kids join her husband, their dad Brian Johnson, for a picnic in the park. Then the whole family heads back to OTP for an evening rehearsal of the musical “Les Miserables.”
It’s a hectic schedule, but one Johnson believes is worth it for the family to participate together in the blockbuster show. And the long commutes give them time to rehearse their music to a CD they crank up in the car.
“We feel it’s an amazing opportunity for our children and us,” said the former entertainer at Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland, and Fantine in one of two OTP “Les Mis” casts. "We feel it’s something we’ll always remember.”
The community theater bug tends to bite families, members of which often work behind the scenes while others take to the stage. But even by community theater standards, “Les Mis” boasts an unusual number of families — eight — including father and daughters; father, mother and daughter; husband and wife; and two sets of brothers.
“This is a show that community theaters have been waiting for for years,” said OTP business manager Carly McCall, adding that licensing was opened to community and semi-professional theaters for just 19 months before closing again. “It was a big moment to get it. To have 170 people come for auditions for a show is unheard of.”
The show opens today and runs through Nov. 2, making it one of the longest-running playhouse shows and the second "Les Mis" production to be staged in the area. Traverse City West Senior High mounted a student version of the show in 2007.
"There are a dozen different versions out there. It's being done all over Michigan," said director Jeanette Mason, who has been rehearsing the OTP casts since June. "What marks us is the very limits of our structure and the very large size of our cast. Everyone in our cast has multiple roles. And we're doing it in an old church. We have no lifts, no turntables, no way to fly things in or out. The venue is small compared to many live venues. That gives you an intimacy that you can't get from the fourth row balcony in the Fisher Theater in Detroit."
Mason first saw the sweeping saga of love, valor and honor in London, while there to teach summer classes in theater appreciation. The show about 19th-century French society, politics and a bloody student-led uprising is based on the historical novel by Victor Hugo.
"I have my 1985 'Les Mis' shirt, my 1985 mug, my 1985 sweatshirt. And I proceeded to see it again in double digits," Mason said. "I was overwhelmed by it. It was like an epiphany for me about how theater could be. It’s the everyman story, the every generation story, the every civilization story."
Johnson stars as Fantine, a working-class girl who leaves her hometown to seek her fortune in Paris, but instead winds up pregnant and abandoned and forced to survive as a prostitute. Her real-life daughter Hannah plays opposite as young version of Fantine's daughter, Cosette, while son Jaden is Gavroche, a brave street urchin who plays a decisive role in the revolution, even though he's unarmed. Brian Johnson plays a foreman.
"I die early on in the show, which is a saving grace because then I can take care of the kids," said Susan Johnson, who has help with the younger children during long rehearsals from other members of the cast and crew. "They have a lot of independence there, but it's really safe. People at OTP realize that they have to find ways to encourage participation by youth and families, so I'm not getting bad looks from people. What you find more often is that people are offering, 'I'm not going to be onstage long for this number. Can I help?'"
If you go "Les Miserables" runs Thursdays through Saturdays, with occasional Sunday matinees. Tickets are $25 for adults, $14 for children, and $23 for seniors and students on Thursdays and Sundays. They're available at mynorthtickets.com. For more information, visit oldtownplayhouse.org.