“Les Miserables” closes this weekend at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. For dates and show times, see the VC On Stage Calendar of Events.
Carlos Penaranda talks about playing the dastardly funny M. Thénardier in “Les Miserables”
Carlos Penaranda portrays one of the more colorful characters in ARTS’ production of “Les Miserables,” the opportunistic bumbling innkeeper, M. Thénardier. A versatile character actor, Penaranda also has a fine singing voice, which he showed off to great effect in last year’s production of “The Music Man.” (He was one of the members of the barbershop quartet.) In between blacking out his teach and poofing up his white wig for the wedding scene, Carlos answered a few questions about his character.
VCOS: Had you played Thenardier before?
CARLOS: No this is the very first time I have played him. He has always been one of my dream roles to play. I remember really loving the character the first time I saw the show when it first came to Los Angeles.
VCOS: How do you see his character?
CARLOS: To me Thénardier is the evil comic relief in the show. With the exception of the sewer scene, just when things are really getting depressing with people dying left and right, here comes Thénardier to lighten it up a bit. He takes advantage of everyone and everything with a sickly sweet smile on his face. He is a true con man and good at it too.
VCOS: Many people think Javert is the villain of “Les Mis,” but in truth, isn’t your character the true bad guy?
CARLOS: Oh yes, most definitely. Javert is evil because, to him, there is only good and bad. There is no “gray” area with him. Thénardier knows exactly how to get what he wants and he does not care who gets in the way or who he uses. Take for instance his own children. He uses both Eponine and Gavroche for his own means. He really couldn’t care less when they both die so long as he can get some money for his “suffering.” You really see his true colors in the sewer scene when he is picking over the dead bodies of the students while he sings the dog eat dog song, laughing the entire time.
VCOS: Thénardier keeps turning up like a bad penny, but he seems to have a slightly different persona in each appearance. How did you handle this?
CARLOS: Good question and one I had to figure out. I decided to really look at the scene before he turns up to see where the show is at the time and then look at my scene and connect the two. Were they related in someway? If not, how much time has passed? A good example is in the “Master of the House” and then where we sell off Cosette. Those are definitely related to each other in time, but in the very next scene, with the peasants in the street, you see Cosette and the Thénardiers ten years later. Gavroche tells that they have lost their inn business, so now they are making a living in other devious ways. In this scene I had to be edgier, more “hungry” and conniving. I used this method with all the different scenes I had.
VCOS: How did you work out the little bits of business you use in “Master of the House”?
CARLOS: I really have to give credit to our choreographer, Becky Castells for this. Becky choreographed the scene with a distinct idea in mind, but still allowed for me and my Madame Thénardier, Elizabeth Stockton, to create and improv a lot of what we did: who we pickpocket, etc., and guiding and pulling us back when we went too far. Becky basically let us have a lot of fun in that scene and it works!
VCOS: Did you change certain things you did as the show progressed?
CARLOS: I don’t know if “change” is the right word. I would say “evolve”. What I do now is different then what I did on opening night. That first weekend, everything was exactly how it was blocked and I kept to it for fear of forgetting my words, but as time passed and one relaxes into and gets comfortable with the part and with their fellow actors, that’s when things “evolve.” A little more inflection here, a little more playfulness there – all the while keeping true to the director’s vision.
VCOS: I guess we’re not sure whether Thénardier is lovable or just evil – is he kind of both, like Captain Hook?
CARLOS: Well, I am going to say yes but I am biased. You are talking to someone whose favorite Disney characters are the villains! I think if Thénardier were a real person , no, he would not be lovable at all, but in the show, he and his wife are the comic relief so I think that the audience does come to like them for all of their bumbling evilness, especially in the wedding scene at the end of the show.
VCOS: Any humorous unexpected things happen during the run?
CARLOS: Yes, there were a few! There always are. One night during the sewer scene, I bent over to drag off a body before Valjean comes on stage and the button on my pants popped off. Now, that is not funny in itself, except that I had to come right back on. Because I had lost weight, my pants started to fall down while I was trying to sing and pick the pockets of Valjean and Marius at the same time. So I kept “clenching,” so to speak, to keep them up. I don’t think the audience knew what was going on but I was terrified that I was going to hit that final note and lose my pants right there in front of everyone.
VCOS: Last question. Thénardier is usually played with a thick Cockney accent. Were you instructed not to use this or was it your idea?
CARLOS: Actually the director and producer asked the entire cast not to use any accents at all. Their reasoning was that because everyone had their own idea of what a “British” or “Cockney” accent sounds like, and since the production did not have a dialect coach, that they didn’t want some of us sounding Cockney and others Irish, Scottish or some strange mix of all of them. So they decided that we should not use any. It was strange at first but we all got used to it quickly and I think it turned out fine.