“I need a bigger throw on that. You really have to huck her.”
“I need a scarf on this man; I can’t be seeing his white cravat.”
“Really listen to me. Listen to yourselves.”
In bright red workout pants, Nicole Howten barks commands into a silver microphone over the sound of speakers blasting a rehearsal soundtrack. She’s energetic and determined, surveying her cast of 60 performers for any mis-folded pant legs, a too-long hemline on a dress or a shawl that doesn’t hang quite right.
The cast is preparing for a two-week run at Hutchins Street Square. Director Howten has worked tirelessly to ensure her sets, costumes and actors are as historically accurate as possible.
“There are all these details you can’t miss,” she said. “If you miss one, it loses authenticity.”
Costume pieces and props were made, rented, purchased or borrowed from across the country. Replica guns were sent in from the New York production. Several of the young students’ jackets were rented from the film studio in Los Angeles.
The largest set piece is a 12 feet talll, 28 feet long barricade made of scraps of wood, broken furniture and thrift store finds.
The music was orchestrated for this production in New York City, then tweaked for timing by Howten and her crew. A 30 member chorus will fill the back few rows of the theater to sing along in the group numbers, creating a surround sound effect.
All of it comes together with a sense of authenticity that allows the audience to fall completely into the story.
“The chorus is invaluable. It gives you a feeling like you are one of the citizens,” she said.
Directing this show has been a goal of Howten’s for 28 years. She was among the first to see the American tour in New York City in the weeks after it opened.
But to protect the integrity of the show, the rights were not available to any theater companies outside of Broadway and the Royal Shakespeare Company. This year, from January to September, the rights were open to community theater groups, and Howten snatched them up.
Seeing the cast running through scenes in their final costumes has brought a sense of reality to the rehearsals.
“See what happens when you put them in costume? They transform. They completely transform,” said Howten. The last bit of emotion Howten was searching for can now be seen in Cosette’s smile, Marius’ eyes, and Valjean’s strong baritone.
With the pieces in place, it’s easy to get lost in the compelling story. Each character is desperately wading through his or her own sense of misery, and viewers will find more than one relatable actor.
“This play is about how life is horrible for everyone,” she said. “But if you love each other, you can get through it.”