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The making of an epic ‘Les Misérables’ in Norwell

Artistic Director Zoe Bradford (left) and actor and designer, James A. Valentin (right), on the set of Les Miserables at The Company Theatre Centre for the Arts in Norwell.

Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe

Artistic Director Zoe Bradford (left) and actor and designer, James A. Valentin (right), on the set of Les Miserables at The Company Theatre Centre for the Arts in Norwell.

Just after 7 p.m. on a rainy Monday, the cast of “Les Misérables” was gathered in the rehearsal space on the second floor of The Company Theatre in Norwell.

“All right, so let’s go to places,” said Zoe Bradford, the theater’s cofounder and artistic director.

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The actors moved to the middle of the room. Dark, gloomy music swelled. The men began chanting and grunting, portraying prisoners on a chain gang in 19th-century France.

With musical director Michael Joseph urging the singers to “open your mouth,” a chorus of gruff, deep voices filled the room with the opening number of “Les Misérables.”

“Look down, look down. . . . Don’t look ’em in the eye. Look down, look down; you’re here until you die.”

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The Company Theatre has been rehearsing “Les Miz” since May, but the origin of this production began long before and is just one of the things that the audience may not recognize on opening night Thursday, such as an offstage crew that is almost as large as the cast, or the contributions of Bradford’s never-ending accumulation of props.

“Les Misérables,” which made its debut nearly 30 years ago, has long been on the wish list of The Company Theatre. But like other community theaters, Norwell had to wait for its chance to perform this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.

The license to “Les Miz” became available to community theaters for the first time in December 2012, and it could not be performed until spring 2013, according to Music Theatre International, a New York-based theatrical licensing agency.

The Company Theatre requested a license “as soon as we heard the rights were available,” said Bradford.

Though the musical, known for its rotating stage and three-hour running time, presents huge logistical challenges, Bradford said her troupe is up to the task.

“There really was no hesitation” in seeking the license, said Bradford.

The production, directed by Bradford and Jordie Saucerman, will employ an orchestra of 20 musicians and more than 100 rented lights that will bathe the scenery in everything from muted pastels and light grayish blues to whitish amber. There will be more than 250 lighting cues (i.e., lighting changes), which took more than 14 hours to program.

To produce the clothing, costume designer Sharon Kivnik said, three sewing machines were stationed in her Framingham dining room, where the table was covered with piles of materials, while her ironing board was parked in the foyer.

The 40 actors in the production will, on average, each have seven to eight costume changes, Kivnik said. All together, that means 1,000 or more pieces of clothing.

“It’s staggering when I think about it,” Kivnik said.

Edward Fee of Hingham is in charge of styling 20 wigs that will be used in the production.

Five members of the crew will be on stage to move the scenery, which reaches as high as 16 feet and includes a custom-made bridge and a hand-crafted barricade inspired by the one used in the Broadway version.

James A. Valentin, a sculptor, carpenter, and designer from Weymouth, built the scenery. To create the barricade, Valentin incorporated part of an old piano, a cradle, a rocking horse, doors, a coffin, a wagon wheel, and various other items into the structure.

“That itself was a huge project, having to configure an eye-catching pile of junk,” said Valentin.

“We use a lot of found objects that Zoe collected,” he added. “She’s a hoarder, so we have lots and lots of stuff.”

Bradford constantly hunts for treasures at antique shops and salvage businesses. Even discarded items on the side of the road can enjoy a theatrical second life and make their way onto the stage. She is particularly proud of the shutters rescued from the Abigail Adams Birthplace in Weymouth, which will appear in the production.

The church scene will feature a stained-glass window depicting Jesus holding a lamb; Bradford got it from Broadcove Auctions in Hingham for $1.

Also appearing on stage will be some unique steamer trunks that were donated by the estate of Victoria Thayer Starr (daughter of painter Polly Thayer Starr), who lived in Hingham and Chinon, France. Such vintage luggage is perfectly suited for “Les Miz” because the trunks once “lived” in France, Bradford said.

One artifact that will not be onstage, but is even more French, is a handwritten letter by Victor Hugo that will be displayed in the theater lobby. The document is on loan from Bryan Duane, the building supervisor for The Company Theatre. According to Bradford, the note was written in pen and ink on an old piece of lined paper, and is a prayer to donate money to the poor.

The local production, however, will not have a revolving turntable like the one used in the original London and Broadway productions.

Bradford said a turntable is not necessary.

“It can totally work without it, too,” said Bradford. “It’s the way you move people that makes it exciting — not necessarily the way the stage turns.”

Chris Caggiano, a theater columnist for About.com and author of the blog “Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals ,’’ said “Les Misérables” is “vocally challenging” and a big production for a community theater.

“It’s ambitious,” he said.

“Les Miz hasn’t been available for community theaters — it’s only been available for high schools — and now that it’s been released, the people in The Company Theatre are in the perfect position to put it on,” said Caggiano.

It is a good fit for The Company Theatre, he said, because “they have the infrastructure in place to accommodate a show of this physical scope.”

One thing is for sure: The widespread popularity of “Les Misérables” has not waned.

“It’s a huge draw,” said Caggiano. “It’s currently enjoying its second Broadway revival. It’s a cash cow.”

When the auditions were held this year, 236 actors tried out for parts — a record number for The Company Theatre, according to Bradford.

The cast includes veteran actors like Andrew Giordano, who has performed on Broadway and at Carnegie Hall with Reba McEntire. Giordano plays the role of Javert, the overzealous policeman, and this will be his third time appearing in “Les Misérables.”

He and other seasoned performers will share the stage with up-and-coming young actors like Bryan George Rowell. The 19-year-old was initially cut from the auditions, and later called back to play the role of a barricade boy.

“Originally when they cast it, I wasn’t on the list,” said Rowell, who lives in Braintree and attends Quincy College. “When I got the call, I was so happy.”

During a rehearsal break, Rowell said the experience has been “amazing. Sitting in the rehearsals and hearing everyone sing is really breathtaking.”

“Les Misérables” will be performed at The Company Theatre, 30 Accord Park Drive, Norwell, today through Aug. 17. Tickets are $36 to $39. Call 781-871-2787 or visit www.companytheatre.com.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
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