It doesn’t take long to spot it.
‘Les Miserables’ is in the credits of James Dodgson and Vanessa Dodgson-Thomas, and you’d – rightly – assume that production in London’s West End is how they met.
That was about a decade ago, and a wedding and a move to the United States — he moved before the wedding, she after the union, by the way — followed.
Although it’s not the norm, they started working together again a few years ago during a national tour on Disney’s enduring stage adaptation of ‘The Lion King’ – complete with all its animal costumes and acclaimed puppeteers. – for which she is a manager. and he the musical director/conductor.
“For us,” James said in a recent joint phone interview before filming the production at Playhouse Square in Cleveland“Being able to work together and see a part of America is awesome.”
“We’re very lucky,” Vanessa adds, “because so many people on the show — they have families back home.”
Of course, this isn’t a series of performances in Playhouse Square – of “The Lion King” or any other show; it’s the first major traveling show to play the Cleveland-based nonprofit resort since the novel coronavirus pandemic stopped the theater world in its tracks in March 2020.
The couple were with the show in South Bend, Indiana at the time. James recalls a meeting where it was announced that production would be halted and “everyone should pack up and go home for a few weeks,” he laughs.
And Vanessa remembers telling people, “See you in two and a half weeks!” and “See you in the next town!”
Before too long, she stopped checking posters for places where the show could theoretically have resumed and a team was sent back to South Bend to pack up the set and other materials and put them away.
When they were back in Jersey City, New Jersey, outside of the Big Apple, James devoted time to his “secondary hustle” as a songwriter and took a few classes at New York University. Meanwhile, Vanessa – who had long wanted a pet but recognized that a life on the road made it very impractical – spent energy raising four cats and a dog at various times.
“And the dog was a full time job, right?” said James.
The British couple even took trips back to the UK, which James admits was risky but worth it as they never had that kind of free time. As you can imagine, Christmas with distant relatives is not the norm for them.
So, returning to work came with its downsides.
“It felt like we had kind of set up a decent life – because touring is very fleeting and you work with a lot of different people and they come and go,” he says.
Vanessa arrived in Cleveland a few days before James. And while there was a trip to Crocker Park in Westlake and a vague enjoyment of hearing the plane at the Cleveland National Air Show over Labor Day weekend, that’s about it for the couple.
Although he directs the musicians during performances, he is also responsible for rehearsals and more.
“Anything that involves music in the show,” he says, “I’m kind of responsible.”
Although she is the one who “calls” or coordinates the show during a performance, she and the other three shifts of the management team regularly put out small fires of the figurative variety – solving problems and making sure that everyone has what it takes. they must fulfill their responsibilities.
“Yeah, it’s very reactive work,” she says. “Obviously we have a few things we need to do…(but) we’re constantly juggling a lot of balls in the air to keep it all going.”
While the joint gig allows them to travel together, they say they don’t run the risk of seeing each other TOO much at work.
“For the past two weeks, I hardly saw Vanessa at work because she was doing other things and I was in rehearsal,” James says. “So, yeah, we don’t really face each other (laughs).”
While Playhouse Square has COVID-19-related protocols in place for guests involving proof of vaccination or a recent negative test, as well as masking, Disney has its own cast and crew mandates.
“I think it’s very safe,” Vanessa says. “Disney is mandating that everyone employed on the show be vaccinated. We are being tested by PCR daily, currently.
Children too young for vaccination are an exception, so anyone who can do their job while wearing a face covering is required to do so, she adds.
James says the reboot gave those running the show meaningful time to work with the actors in a rehearsal space, instead of intermittent times on a theater stage, where they could focus on the material without working on the technical elements. It allowed them to take a fresh look at how to interpret the material, he says.
However, the only notable major change from the past will be Act II’s opening number, “One by One” – traditionally done with performers coming into the aisles.
“Right now we can’t do that, so we re-choreographed it,” he says. “We changed the music slightly.
“We (rehearsed) it this morning, and I think it sounds fantastic,” he adds. “He has a different energy.”
For the most part, though, the goal has been to present the beloved show — with its great cast and all those puppeteers — as fully as possible.
“Social distancing from a cast of 50 on stage is impossible, and we want the audience to have the show,” he says. “Until we could do the show like we do, (Disney) didn’t want to do the show.”
They say they feel safe at work.
“There’s still apprehension – it’s (the) unknown – but it feels like whatever can be done is being done to protect us.”
“Life has to go on,” adds James, “because I don’t think it’s going to go away in the very near future.”
Based on the 1994 animated musical hit, the show itself – with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice – has been around for nearly a quarter of a century.
“It appeals to all ages,” Vanessa says. “There’s a certain aspect of the show that comes through to kids, and then there are deeper, more meaningful threads running through the show that appeal to parents and grandparents.”
You never forget the first time you have the production’s unique staging, she says.
“I think that’s one of the reasons the show has lasted so long: people have this great theatrical experience and they want to share it with their loved ones and new generations as they come along.
James points out that the show recently reopened on Broadway to an enthusiastic response and says he expects the same in Cleveland – the first city he encountered years ago while touring “Mary Poppins” and from the UK.
“I hope it will be a very joyful and exciting experience,” Vanessa says. “I think there will be a lot of tears – I’m sure in the audience and backstage and, maybe, on stage – when we do this first show.”
Disney’s “The Lion King”
Or: KeyBank State Theater in Playhouse Square, Cleveland.
When: From October 1 to 15.
Tickets: $29 to $195.
Information: PlayhouseSquare.org or 216-241-6000.
Playhouse Square recently announced that to implement a safer return to indoor shows at full capacity, guests will be required to provide proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for those who cannot be vaccinated – in addition to the mask requirement introduced in July.
“Building on the momentum we created with the success of ‘The Choir of Man,’ we are heading into full-capacity performances for the return of Broadway, our beloved resident companies, concerts and live performances. ‘humor,” said the President and CEO of Playhouse Square. Gina Vernaci in a press release. “We are all looking forward to enjoying live performances together again; the vaccination requirement imposed by Playhouse Square and venues across the country allows us to maintain our forward movement in a responsible manner. Our first priority is always the safety of our audience, staff, volunteers and visiting artists, and we look forward to welcoming everyone to Playhouse Square for a safe and memorable experience.
Ticket holders for performances at Playhouse Square will receive information on how to verify proof of vaccination or negative tests, the statement said.