IF YOU GO
• What: "Les Miserables"
• Where: Chattanooga Theatre Centre, 400 River St.
• When: 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
• Tickets: $25; special $12.50 discount offered on side-section seating at Thursday and Sunday performances only
• Information: 423-267-8534
Although he's a self-described "theater nerd," Michael Dexter admits he wasn't familiar with "Les Miserables" when he auditioned for the Chattanooga Theatre Centre's production. Even so, not only was he cast in the production — he got the lead.
"To be honest, I was shocked that I was cast as Jean Valjean," says the actor. "With shows as legendary as 'Les Miz' and with as riveting a character as Valjean, African-American actors such as myself never really consider the thought of being cast in this role. I am beyond the moon that George Quick (director) and Tim Hinck (musical director) saw something in me."
Quick says he was impressed with Dexter's extensive resume, his voice and acting skills.
"I think having an African-American in the role makes it even richer," the director says.
Playing the heroic Valjean has been quite a high-profile homecoming for the former Chattanoogan and alumnus of Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts. After graduating from the Unviersity of Miami's Frost School of Music, Dexter pursued a career in New York City. He originated the role of Ethan in the off-Broadway production of "Wanda's World," performed in "The Beth Falcone Songbook" at Lincoln Center, and was Victor in the touring company of "Smokey Joe's Cafe," among his many credits.
He's an advanced composer/lyricist in the BMI Musical Theater Workshop and is currently collaborating with Eric Weinberger on "Giant Steps, An Urbean Musical" for a development production. He took a break to come home and pursue his teaching certification and a master's degree in vocal performance at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
His "day job" actually takes place in the wee hours of the morning at Old Navy, where he is part of the team that places new products in preparation for the store's opening later that morning.
"My days start at 3 a.m. and end around 11 p.m. with as many naps as possible throughout the day," the actor jokes.
On a more serious note, Dexter reveals he's maintaining a varied regimen to keep his strength up and his voice in shape for the mighty musical that requires actors to sing almost nonstop for three hours. Here's how he preps for that vocal workout.
Q: "Les Miz" is three hours of nonstop singing. How do you keep your energy level up for five shows each weekend?
The energy comes from God and the Holy Spirit. I start the show as a slave on a rope and every time I touch that rope I say, "Lord, enter me, I cannot do this show without you." Then I turn on and, once I turn on, I am unstoppable.
Q: Anything special you do to pamper your voice?
I pamper my voice all day. I try to get as much rest as possible. I make sure I do at least 90 minutes of cardio a day. I make sure I steam my voice about 15 to 30 minutes a day. I do my vocal/breathing exercises and, most importantly, I do not speak unless I have to. I also treat myself with local organic honey, vitamin C and my all-time favorite, apple cider vinegar.
Q: Do you have a favorite song among those Jean Valjean performs?
I love to sing all the music, but I particularly love to sing the "Prologue." As an actor, the "Prologue" allows me to check in with myself. I check to make sure my breath is beneath me. I check to make sure I am not holding unwanted tension in my voice. I check my body from head to toe to find any unwanted tension. I check to make sure I am focused. I check to make sure I am living in every single moment. And, I check to make sure I am present and there for my fellow actors.
Aside from the "Prologue," I love it when I get to sing the "Epilogue" because it signals to me that I have made it through the three demanding hours.
Q: Valjean sings "Bring Him Home," a tearjerker for the audience, but a number that's demanding on the singer because of its long, sustained phrases, and that killer falsetto note at the end -- all of which must be sung in a quiet, prayerful manner. Any special vocal techniques you are using for that?
I apply everything my voice teacher, Perry Ward, has taught me. I can hear him saying, "Spin the breath." Breath is what allows me to float those falsetto notes in "Bring Him Home." Singers often forget that learning to relax the voice while singing is a technique within itself and is rather difficult to accomplish. Other than breathing and relaxing the voice, just telling the story is what ultimately allows me to sing "Bring Him Home." The song is not about me.
Q: Having never seen "Les Miserables," what do you think you bring to the character of Jean Valjean that imprints him as yours?
I am brand-new to this character. I do plan on seeing Hugh Jackman's portrayal of Valjean in the movie as well as Ramin Karimloo's Valjean in the current Broadway revival when I vacation in New York City after our show closes. I am not sure what nuances I bring to Valjean, but I do know that the character delivers to me a real human experience.
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...