PANAMA CITY — The stage goes dark and a spotlight picks out the lone figure bending under the weight of her despair. She begins, quietly at first but with growing intensity, to sing about a dream of a life worth living.
Susan Boyle famously leaped from obscurity to international renown in 2009 for her rendition of the song “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables.” It’s a song of desolation and hopelessness, sung as the character Fantine loses her job and drifts into prostitution, illness and death.
In the Gulf Coast State College production of the musical, opening Friday to a sold-out theater, the role and the song is performed by GCSC student Leeah Taunton.
“Fantine is a tragic character,” Taunton said. “She’s iconic for the women in poverty back then and the things they had to go through. She dreams of a life that she has always wanted and longed for, but unfortunately she doesn’t get that.”
As Clinton McCormick explains, that’s because people couldn’t change their stations in life in the days before the French Revolution. McCormick, as Jean Valjean, stands taller than just about anyone else on the stage — and it’s a suitable visual metaphor.
“Jean Valjean is the ultimate underdog,” McCormick said. “He got sent to prison just for stealing food to feed his family. … He’s given this chance by God to make something better out of himself. Back in this time period, this never happened. If you were poor, you stayed poor.”
(Which makes his struggle also, if you consider it, a fitting metaphor for the community college experience as well.)
Valjean’s nemesis is the police officer Javert, whom we first meet as the overseer of a group of convicts. Javert gives Valjean his parole papers and sends him off into the world, warning Valjean that he will always be a criminal in the eyes of the law and society.
“He’s often villainized, but he’s not a bad guy,” said Stephen DeVillers, who portrays Javert. “He is a good guy, he’s just strict to the letter of the law.”
DeVillers has played the lead in a number of productions at Gulf Coast, but he said “Les Mis” is like no other show he’s done: “It’s the biggest show we’ll ever see, probably, here — probably the biggest show I’ll ever do. It’s just been awesome doing this show.”
Not everyone lives the dream they dreamed. Not all can change their station. But that doesn’t make the challenge less rewarding. It’s the journey, after all, and not the destination.
(My Undercurrents column this week for PanamaCity.com and The News Herald.)