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Oxford Youth Singers presents operatic 'Les Miserables'

Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith ---- "Les Miserables" cast members, from left, Julianna Laseter as Cosette and Christian Speeler as Jean Valjean, both of whom are Eastside High School students, rehearse a scene from the upcoming musical, performed by the Oxford Youth Singers and presented by the Arts Association in Newton County.

Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith ---- "Les Miserables" cast members, from left, Julianna Laseter as Cosette and Christian Speeler as Jean Valjean, both of whom are Eastside High School students, rehearse a scene from the upcoming musical, performed by the Oxford Youth Singers and presented by the Arts Association in Newton County.

Mary Lynn Luke, musical director of the Oxford Youth Singers for the past nine years, minces no words when describing the rigor of the vocal ensemble's upcoming production, the epic, award-winning musical "Les Miserables."

"It is the most ambitious show we've ever done," said Luke, who has had a hand in producing musicals in the east metro area for the last two decades. "Two weeks from now, we may all be saying, 'What were we thinking?'"

But Luke adds that the performers -- ranging from eighth- graders to high school seniors -- are up to the test and have been working since the beginning of the year to bring the opera, which has been seen by 65 million theatre patrons in 42 countries, to the Porter Auditorium stage.

"It's a lot different," Luke said, who with the Oxford Singing Children recently staged "School House Rocks." "It's an opera, so there's no speaking in the play -- everything is sung. So we're asking students to pull off two hours of opera, which is a challenge we've never undertaken.

"We've got mostly seniors in the leading roles and this is a strong group of 12th-graders. I think they were ready for something like this and we felt we had the performers to answer the challenge of a two-hour opera. But it's still tough since they'll be acting and singing, as opposed to acting and dialogue."

And it's not just the singers who have a lot on their plates. The set design includes a barricade standing more than 7 feet high with a host of stairs ("It's pretty cool looking," Luke said), there are plenty of period costumes, hats and wigs to track down, and period stage rifles also had to be located (and in some cases, ordered).

"Everything is very specialized," Luke said. "We also had to be true to the period furniture, and there's a pub scene where everything is wooden and old."

Based on the historical novel by Victor Hugo with the revolutionary times of 19th century France as its backdrop, "Les Miserables" opened in 1985 at London's Barbican Theatre and three years ago celebrated its 25th anniversary. It is the longest-running musical in the world and its songs and story have kept theatregoers on the edge of their seats for nearly 50,000 professional performances.

Luke said the principal parts were cast last October so that performers could begin preparing and could see the popular feature film version that was released in America on Christmas Day. At that time, both the Oxford Singing Children and the Oxford Youth Singers had just completed their annual "Christmas in Covington" recitals, and after a two-week break for Christmas, got back to work.

"We've got between 60 and 65 singers," Luke said. "We have a rehearsal of 90 minutes to two hours every Thursday and we've been adding rehearsals on Tuesday nights and on Saturdays. Our Thursday rehearsals involve everybody in the cast and then the other rehearsals are for smaller characters and scenes."

She also pointed out that this version of "Les Miserables" is referred to as "The School Edition," which means it's slightly shorter (two hours, as opposed to three hours) and is "PG-13."

"The entire storyline is intact," Luke said. "There are spots where they leave out a second verse here and there and cut some little extra material, but it's still a very powerful story and it retains its original messages of forgiveness and redemption."

"Les Miserables" represents the conclusion of yet another performance season by the Oxford Youth Singer and Oxford Singing Children -- which are sponsored by the Arts Association in Newton County -- and Luke said she doesn't yet know what productions will be pursued in the 2013-14 season, although the very popular "Christmas in Covington" will return.

Luke is adamant, however, that she'll try to find something both ensembles can work on together.

"I hope we can find a show that will incorporate both choirs of about 100 people," she said. "It's very trying to try to pull off two shows at the same time."