A barricade of tables, chairs, other furniture and odds and ends piles up onstage at the Athens Theatre in DeLand. Delicate lighting sets the mood. A half-dozen musicians tug at the heartstrings as they mournfully play. Before long, more than 40 actors will take the stage in the finale of beloved musical "Les Miserables."
Yes, "Les Miz." The Athens is the first community theater in Central Florida to tackle the sprawling musical based on Victor Hugo's 19th-century novel. Artistic director Craig Uppercue says tackling such a demanding show serves his mission of increasing the artistic quality — and the audience — at the theater, about 40 miles north of downtown Orlando.
"It's night and day, compared to where we've been," says Uppercue, 33, who became artistic director in July. "The quality is here to stay, as far as I'm concerned."
Uppercue, a DeLand resident, has toured with "The Rock and the Rabbi," been a featured percussionist with "The Lion King" on Broadway and accompanied touring Broadway shows in Orlando. He has taught at Stetson University and is currently a music specialist for Volusia County Schools.
Uppercue, who had been the theater's education director, "inherited" "Les Miserables" — the board of directors already had announced the upcoming Athens season when he took up his post.
"The initial reaction was excitement," he says. "But I have to be honest, I had some big concerns. It was really a stretch of our resources," he says. But help was found, when needed: Many of the costumes were loaned by Lake Howell High School in Seminole County, for example. More than 150 people showed up to audition.
If tackling "Les Miz" was a gamble, it seems to have paid off. More than 350 theatergoers have been attending each performance, in a theater that seats 450, Uppercue says.
Artistically, too, the production is successful. A recent performance demonstrated strong singers in leading roles, and a robust ensemble that did justice to the familiar music. Director Donald Rupe has solved some of the technical issues by projecting text from Hugo's novel during scene changes. The smartly built set allows the musicians to be onstage but not overpower the singers.
For next season, nothing as extravagant as "Les Miz" is planned, but Uppercue has added a series of smaller plays to accompany the main productions. He hopes to pay the actors in two of the shows. "If we are compensating the actors, we're going to see the level of quality go up," he says.
The Athens Theatre troupe sprung from the Sands Theater Center, which previously had staged shows elsewhere in DeLand. In 2009, the company moved into the restored Athens, which it owns.
He thinks the Athens can expand its audience further.
"I see a void with Seaside Musical Theatre in Daytona Beach gone," Uppercue says. That professional theater closed in 2008. "We're starting to see people from that area coming over here now. As long as we can keep our artistic level where it is, I think the community will come and support us."
• What: Musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo
• Length: 2:45, including intermission
• Where: Athens Theatre, 124 N. Florida Ave., DeLand
• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays (except April 24), 2:30 p.m. Sundays (except April 20), through April 27
• Tickets: $22-$27; seniors $19; students $10
• Call: 386-736-1500
• Online: AthensDeLand.com