ELCA students challenged by timeless Les Misérables

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

He knew it was going to be a “tough sell” to get administrators of a Christian academy to approve his theater department’s latest project.

But Chuck Ekstedt, director of fine arts and theater at Eagles Landing Christian Academy, said this production was worth any salesmanship required of him, because it so clearly demonstrates to students and audience members the critical Christian theme of redemption.

French peasant Jean Valjean, portrayed by Eagles Landing Christian Academy junior Zion Middleton, right, before a chorus of other “prisoners,” sings about his need for redemption in a dress rehearsal for the school’s production of the musical “Les Misérables.” Photo by Donny Cotten

The production Ekstedt was going to bat for is “Les Misérables,” a musical based on the epic 1862 French novel.

“Well, ‘Les Mis’ has a reputation for dealing with some tough, gritty issues,” Ekstedt said. “There are parts of the story that are dark. It deals with broken people, and redeeming those broken people. It’s an allegory of the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. That’s the conversation I had to have with the administration, and they were wonderful, very responsive and supportive.”

The musical will be staged Thursday and Friday, April 27-28, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, April 29, at 1 p.m., in the main auditorium at Eagles Landing First Baptist Church, 2400 Highway 42 N., in McDonough. More than 60 students will perform, including “a live orchestra and all of the props, costumes and sets you would expect to see in a full production of ‘Les Mis.’”

“Les Misérables,” colloquially known as “Les Mis,” is a musical based on the novel of the same name by French poet and novelist Victor Hugo. Premiering in Paris in 1980, its London counterpart has run continuously since October 1985 – the world’s second longest-running musical.

Set in early 19th-century France, “Les Mis” is the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant, and his quest for exoneration after serving 19 years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child. Valjean decides to break his parole and start his life anew after a kindly bishop inspires him with an act of mercy, but he is relentlessly tracked by a police inspector, Javert, against a backdrop of a revolutionary period in France.

And while the scope of the musical covers an intricate plot, the theme is a simple one, Ekstedt said. “The show ends with, ‘Will you join in our crusade?’ And then, ‘To love another person is to see the face of God.’ The whole thing is an allegory of God’s mercy through Christ. Everything in ‘Les Mis’ is a reflection of the gospel, the good news, that we have each been redeemed.”

The protagonist, Jean Valjean, is played by junior Zion Middleton, who also serves as student director for tasks like blocking and choreography. “This has been a dream role for me since age 11,” Middleton said, confessing that memorizing the character’s voluminous lines was aided by his love for the “Les Mis” novel, movies and musical productions. “Jean Valjean has a big personality. When he walks into a room, people respect him, and yet he has a gentle spirit as well. So playing that, demanding yet gentle, is a challenge.”

It is not lost on sophomore David Hodges – who plays Jean Valjean’s lifelong adversary, Inspector Javert – that the story of the needs for strong law enforcement versus grace, of evil versus good, requires a strong antagonist. “Usually the protagonist in a story is clearly right and the antagonist is clearly wrong, but not here. At times, both are right at the same time. The determination to enforce the law that drives Javert is not itself wrong. But we see reflected in the story that its victims are never shown grace or love. It is grace that melts the law, and that’s our hope, because we all mess up.”

The chance to play the character Cosette, the daughter of Jean Valjean, is a prize for junior Mallory Armstrong. “She’s always been one of my dream roles to play,” Armstrong said. “I admire what she overcomes, while remaining loyal to her father. This musical is all about loving another person – despite whatever crime or hurt has been committed – and overcoming the big struggles in this life. It’s so inspiring.”

Easily the musical’s darkest character is a deceitful innkeeper named Thénardier, played by junior Jared Denk. “It’s a fun role. I get to be this crazy guy with a creepy evil side. If Jean Valjean is a Christ-type character, then the show’s Satan is Thénardier. I’m thrilled we’re doing this. It’s the biggest production we’ve ever done.”

Junior Brooke Smith, who plays Éponine Thénardier, acknowledged that while this production will not shrink back from depicting the somber life of 19th century French prostitutes, “showing love to such social outcasts was what Jesus was all about. He spent time with prostitutes and tax collectors,” Smith said. “This show’s real. It pops the bubble we sometimes live in. It wakes us from our routine lives and shows us the real pain of the world. That’s why redemption is so important.”

“The people in our school understand that this is a classic tale about redemption,” agreed musical director Kim Creasey. “The parallels to Christ are many.”

“Some of the tension in staging this production is that prostitution is depicted,” said orchestra director Brandon Sosebee. “You can’t have grace and redemption if there isn’t a fall. It’s going to be very clear that these characters are broken and need to be redeemed, a parallel to our own depravity and need for a savior.”

For more pictures from the Les Misérables dress rehearsal visit us on Facebook at www.face book.com/thehenrycountytimes