John Ambrosino dreams a dream in ‘Les Miserables’ revival

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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“Doing this show, I can’t even call it a bucket list item,” out actor John Ambrosino says of touring with the newest production of “Les Miserables,” direct from its celebrated Broadway revival and dreaming a dream at Tampa’s Straz Center Jan. 15-20. “It’s an honor to be able to do it.”

The Tony Award-winning musical based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel of the same name “has changed the world of the musical in so many ways,” Ambrosino continues. “It’s iconic; a juggernaut that has kept going and aweing audiences for years. To be able to go out there every night and perform the show that I saw as a 12-year-old boy is just one of the greatest things in the world.”Since its 1986 stage debut, “Les Miserables” has been seen by 70 million people in 44 countries and performed in 22 languages. It also spawned multiple film adaptations, including 2012’s Academy Award-winning production starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway.

Set in 19th-century France, “Les Miserables” tells the “story of broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice and redemption—a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit,” that has “become one of the most celebrated musicals in theatrical history.”

Ambrosino—who currently plays Bamatabois, Claquesous and understudies Thenardier and Grantaire—vividly recalls seeing the show for the first time during its initial national tour. “I remember being in awe of what I was experiencing,” he says. “I remember quite clearly the sets, the direction and of course the score and the music.”

He adds that he “immediately left and begged” his parents to buy him the score, which includes celebrated classics like “I Dreamed A Dream,” “On My Own,” “Bring Him Home,” and “One Day More.”

“I was enthralled,” Ambrosino says. “I remember feeling like it was one of the most awesome experiences that I would ever have.”

It’s something he takes with him onstage as a member of the tour’s ensemble. “I often think maybe there’s a 12-year-old boy in this audience watching,” he says, “thinking ‘maybe I can do this. I want to do this for my life.’ It’s very cool.”

His most notable role is Bamatabois, he says, a “sexually ambiguous character” highlighted in a pivotal scene in which he “terrorizes” the show’s featured role of Fantine. “He clearly comes to the red light district to dominate and degrade women. He’s very well-dressed, very high class. He’s a really nasty, terrible man and I love, love playing him.”

It’s in the scene that Fantine “takes the upper hand” and is “lifted out of this horrible existence she’s found herself in,” he says. Ambrosino notes that while “it’s terrible that the character is so horrible, I do actually really enjoy the challenge and the depth of what that moment means … not only to me as an actor but also to the play in general.”

Notably, the actor also portrays a student in the revolution and “the queer in the wedding,” the latter of which he calls one of his most exciting moments on stage. “I’m on in years,” he muses, “and I have only played a gay man one other time … so when I get to do so I am thrilled. It’s a tiny little thing but it gets a great laugh and I get to represent myself authentically in that way. It’s really fun.”

Authenticity and energy are found throughout the revival production. “It’s completely reimagined in many ways for its revival that just ran on Broadway,” Ambrosino says. “The scenic design is different, but it maintains a lot of the physical and environmental characteristics of the kind of dark world we were living in during that time.”

That’s elevated by projections that weren’t available during the show’s original run and reimagined scenery inspired by the paintings of the Victor Hugo himself. “Besides being a great writer, he was also quite a great artist,” Ambrosino notes. “There are a lot of his paintings and sketches that still exist today and they’ve used those. It’s still as epic as the original scenic design, just different.”

Ambrosino says that first-time audience goers and repeat viewers alike will enjoy the revival. “The story’s the exact same, the music’s the exact same, the costumes are similar because they are designed by the same designer and obviously the cast is different. The director has chosen to cast the show is a little differently.”

The casting of the tour has offered “a real kind of humanity and vitality,” he adds. “I think the portrayals are fresh and different—something everyone will get excited about seeing in this production. It’s a different way in.”

At its core, he describes “Les Miserables” as “a story about a good man who’s fallen upon hard times and a good woman who has fallen upon hard times, who literally just want to be good in the world.”

It’s “an absolutely timeless journey of the human experience and is so hopeful,” Ambrosino continues. “I think that’s what keeps audiences coming back, seeing those characters strive to be good and to fight against the darkness of the world.”

Even so, he muses, that wouldn’t be enough on its own. “The story is great, but then you add onto that the most amazing score, this beautiful scenic world and all of those things make this musical a triumph.” For much of the show’s vitality, he credits its creators—Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg—and Cameron Mackintosh, “who has been shepherding this show as its producer since it first began.”

“If you’ve seen ‘Les Miserables’ before and love it then you’re going to love this production all over again,” Ambrosino asserts. “It delivers on every level and I truly mean that, I don’t just say it because I’m in the show.

“If you’ve never experienced ‘Les Miserables’ then you’re going to experience it as its fullest grandeur and most unbelievable spectacle,” he continues, “and you’ll fall in love with it just like everyone did in 1986.”

“Les Miserables” plays at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts Jan. 15—20. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit StrazCenter.org.

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