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Rochester actor has long history with "Les Miserables"
Steve Czarnecki could not have known how prophetic his starring role in a Rochester Summer Music Theatre production of “Les Miserables” during 2005 would be.
The Rochester Hills-raised actor and Rochester Adams graduate played Jean Valjean back then. Now he’s on the road with the latest touring production of the iconic, award-winning musical, regularly part of the ensemble — as the factory foreman, the accused thief Champmathieu, the thug Brujon and more — as well as an understudy for Valjean and Inspector Javert. And Czarnecki’s wife, Liz Shivener, is a cast swing and dance captain.
The French Revolution piece may not exactly be Czarnecki’s life, but it’s certainly a big part of it.
“Omigosh, yes. I saw it at the Fisher when I was in third or fourth grade, the touring production of the original (show),” Czarnecki, 31, says by phone from a tour stop in Ottawa. “I remember going into school the next morning, singing the songs. So this means more to me than just being cast in another musical.”
Czarnecki’s familiarity with “Les Miz” also gives him a degree of authority when he weighs in on the new production, which follows a Broadway revival that changed many of the original’s totems. The story, songs and characters are the same, but the on-stage turntable that dazzled audiences starting in 1980 is gone. And much of the scenery has been replaced with backdrops based on paintings by “Les Miserables” author Victor Hugo.
Czarnecki hesitates to call it better or worse — just different.
“This version is a little more intimate, a little more cinematic in its scope and design,” he explains. “It works really well. Luckily we have this creative team that just lives and breathes this show. The people who are involved in this new production were involved in the original production 30 years ago in London as actors. They have that ingrained in them still, so they know where to stay true to the original and where things can’t be changed and there they felt they could make some little tweaks.
“Plus (original producer) Cameron Mackintosh is still the overseer of the property. He’s not going to let anything happen to it that will take away from the timeless story that is ‘Les Miz.’ So we’re in good hands.”
Czarnecki, who was born in New Jersey and moved to Rochester Hills when he was 9 months old, was introduced to music and theater by his older sister and nurtured in school by now-retired teacher Tim Lentz. “The first thing I liked was going and seeing my sister do shows,” Czarnecki recalls. “I said, ‘This looks like a fun time.’
“And what made it stick with me was the friendship and companionship and open-mindedness of everybody I met. People were always happy to see you when you get to rehearsal. Everyone was on the same page. Everyone wanted to make the play happen. There was never any judgement within that group. It was more like, ‘You’re here, you want to do this, welcome.’”
Czarnecki studied musical theater at Otterbein University, where he also met Shivener, and the two moved to New York during late summer of 2009, “kind of on a wing and a prayer.” Their first jobs were together on the road with “Beauty and the Beast,” and they’ve worked consistently since then, with Czarnecki also logging time in “Phantom of the Opera” before “Les Miz.”
Shivener does have to give Czarnecki notes on his performance now, although he says it’s always done “very professionally.” But they’re happy to be on the road together, driving from city to city in their own car, listening to favorite podcasts and calling friends with their “Yorkie mutt” Ted always alongside.
“Some people might think spending all day, every day with your spouse as being an incredibly difficult challenge,” Czarnecki acknowledges. “From our point of view, the two years before we started this job we were seeing each other maybe once a month, once every two months while I was on the ‘Phantom’ tour and she was working in and around New York.
“So getting an opportunity to spend some quality time together is truly amazing. It’s a wonderful way to do this.”
• If You Go: “Les Miserables” runs Tuesday, Feb. 27-March 11, at Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $45-$350. Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.
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