WARWICK—When Caroline Bateson was a teenager, she took singing lessons with vocal teacher and actor Fred Scheff. Now, several years later, the two East Greenwich residents are reunited as they share the stage at Ocean State Theatre for the Rhode Island Regional Theatre premier of Les Misérables, which opened October 2 and runs through the 27th.
At a recent rehearsal, Scheff and Bateson shared their thoughts, inspiration and excitement as they prepared for their roles: Scheff as the leading man, Jean Valjean, and Bateson playing six different parts as a member of the female chorus.
“I’ve had lead roles, but not like this,” said Scheff. Having performed professionally in almost 80 shows while touring the country, the middle-age actor admits that he feels a sense of accomplishment in still being able to play “the leading man.”
“This is weighty; the role is life or death,” said Scheff, who appears in all but three of the scenes in the three-hour production.
“It’s a wonderful responsibility,” Scheff said. “I get to work with this talented cast.”
The cast that Scheff has come to admire is indeed a brilliant mixture of voices, backgrounds and skills, including Bateson, Scheff’s former student.
“We come prepared because [the rehearsals] are fast-paced,” said 24-year-old Bateson. Having grown up doing amateur theater productions and then studying theater at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, Bateson is thrilled to be back at Ocean State Theatre, after a supporting role in the company’s summer production of Legally Blonde.
“I’ve learned working here at Ocean State Theatre that you need to keep up your mental and physical endurance,” the young actor admitted on break during a routine 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. rehearsal.
Bateson exercises, dances, continues her voice lessons and works hard auditioning with the ultimate goal of making the theater her career.
Though he is a seasoned performer, Scheff agrees with Bateson’s newfound assessment of the theater company’s rigorous pace.
“A friend of mine asked me if I was ready for this role,” Scheff said, referring to the physical requirements of three fight scenes and the exhausting day-and-night rehearsals and performances. “I answered that I’d been training in the gym for two years for a role like this,” he said.
Producing artistic director of Ocean State Theatre Company, and the director of Les Misérables, Amiee Turner has full confidence in the talents of both Scheff and Bateson.
“Fred has a classically trained operetta voice and knows how to be the star vocally,” Turner said. “It’s a gift.”
Moreover, Turner said, Scheff brings a “physical presence” to the role and a “willingness” to do what it takes to make the scenes work.
That willingness is something that Turner also saw in Bateson when she cast her. “Caroline is eager and enthusiastic,” said Turner. “[Her voice] is an incredible instrument as well.”
When casting musical theater, Turner maintains that top-quality voices are paramount to ensure the professionalism of each production. Whether the star or a member of the chorus, both Scheff and Bateson were held to the same high vocal standards.
An accomplished tenor, Scheff brings decades of opera experience to his role, most notably a two-year run of the second national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Scheff has lent his voice to narrations for the Rhode Island Philharmonic and, for the past 40 years, has served as a cantor for his synagogue, Temple Shalom, in Middletown.
“I’ve been singing since I was ten years old,” Scheff said.
A part-time faculty member at Rhode Island College, Scheff teaches voice and music history but was able to take a semester off from teaching to devote his time to Les Misérables.
And for Bateson—though not the lead—the demands of the variety of roles she plays as a chorus member—from a factory worker to a street beggar—require her full attention. “The different physicalities of the characters are challenging,” said Bateson.
Off stage, Bateson works part-time as a nanny and auditions in New York City. “That’s about all I have time for,” she said.
Part of a 24-member cast, Scheff and Bateson ‘hit the ground running,’ rehearsing their lines, blocking scenes, learning choreography and polishing their musical numbers in only two weeks of intense rehearsal before opening night.
“We find the best of the best,” Turner said of her ensemble, who she credits with being able to be inspired on cue. Turner believes that drama is the toughest of the arts because it demands creativity when the curtain goes up—no matter what time of day or night. “And musical theater is the hardest of hard,” Turner said, citing the rigors of singing, dancing and acting.
Set in France in the early 1800s, Les Misérables uses song to tell the story of redemption through main character Jean Valjean, who spent 19 years in prison wrongfully accused and is eager to find truth in the world upon his release. First published in 1862 by Victor Hugo, the book was later translated to screenplay and, after opening on Broadway in 1985, eventually became the world’s longest running musical. It has been produced as a concert version, 25th anniversary tour and a movie.
This popularity, Turner said, can be an asset to a production. “Usually, the more the audience knows, the more they enjoy. We try to take their pre-conceived notions and dig a little deeper.”
Under Turner’s careful and guiding direction, Scheff, Bateson and their castmates have earnestly spent their rehearsal time “digging a little deeper” into their characters, working hard to make each moment on stage matter for their audience.
“You’re only as good as the last time you were on stage,” Scheff said. “I’m committed to this story and the people who entrusted me with this.”
Les Misérables is in capable hands and ready to be shared.
For ticket information, call the Ocean State Theatre Company box office at 401-921-6800, or visit ostcri.org. Prices range from $39 to $54.