When Jean Valjean sits down at the bishop’s table, you can see how hungry he is by the way he shoves food into his mouth with his hands.
When her co-workers at the factory seize Fantine’s letter, every push and pummel shows what a vicious bunch of busybodies they are.
Javert jabs at chain-gang prisoners with a club, Madame Thenardier pulls at little Cosette’s ear, and the hair hag leads Fantine away by holding a knife to her jaw.
All these nuances underscore the pathos and grittiness of “Les Miserables,” and they show the fine tuning that has gone into the KISS Theatre production, which opens tonight in Wilkes-Barre Township.
Then there’s the singing — songs of sorrow, songs of angry men, songs of love and prayerful pleading.
“You wouldn’t know they’re not professionals,” director Christa Manning said of her cast, which she described as one of the first community-theater groups in the country to bring the full-length version of the popular musical to a stage.
How did KISS Theatre achieve that coup?
“We’ve done so many shows through (the licensing agency) Music Theatre International. I try to use them for a lot of children’s shows and I kept telling them, when ‘Les Mis,’ is coming out, let me know right away,” Manning said. “When they called I was flabbergasted and very honored.”
Soon, Manning said, it seemed “everybody who was anybody” in local theater wanted to be part of the show.
“It’s the role of a lifetime,” Wendy Popeck of Forty Fort said of portraying the forlorn mother Fantine. “It’s the saddest role I’ve ever played, but it’s a great story of love and sacrifice.”
Popeck, who calls herself an “equal-opportunity actor,” has appeared on many local stages, as have many other cast members.
But others are novices, and they’re doing a terrific job, said Jason Sherry, one of two principal actors who alternate as Jean Valjean.
“Here, one of the things I enjoy the most is I can see the intensity on the face of every cast member, even if this is their first time acting,” Sherry said.
One of the first-timers, Danielle Venturi of Rice Township, said she became involved because her daughter has been in several shows with KISS Theatre, which usually is a venue for children and teens.
“I’m a KISS mom; that’s what they call us,” Venturi said.
But who says her 13-year-old daughter, Reagan, should have all the fun?
“I’m a beggar and a townsperson,” said Venturi who has been a fan of “Les Miserables” since reading Victor Hugo’s novel when she was about the age her daughter is now.
The story is full of poignant scenes, she said, suggesting the most moving is “Valjean’s visit with Fantine when she’s dying and leaves (her daughter) Cosette in Valjean’s care. As a parent, I put myself in that situation.”
Valjean’s own situation has not been easy, starting with those 19 years he spent in jail “for stealing a mouthful of bread.”
“In the book, he escaped four times, which accounts for the length of his sentence,” Sherry said. “He just can’t submit to what he sees as injustice.”
Sherry shares the role of Valjean with Dane Bower, and some of the other major singing roles also have been double cast to spare the voices of the lead players, Manning said. “I had enough talent (among the singers) to do it.”
Among the smaller roles, some actors have multiple parts in each show.
“I’m five different people: a farmer, a constable, a beggar, a guest of ‘the master of the house’ and a dancer at the wedding,” Walt Mitchell of Bear Creek Township said.
A veteran thespian with decades of experience, Mitchell said, “In all my years of theater, I’ve worked with some terrific actors and singers and dancers, but this is by far this is most broadly and deeply talented cast, from principals through the ensemble, with which I’ve ever worked.
“This is a great gang, singularly focused and very serious about their efforts.”