'Les Misérables' runs Friday–Sunday, Nov. 22–Dec. 8 at Burbank Auditorium in the SRJC campus. 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. Friday–Saturday at 8pm. 2pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday. One Thursday show Dec. 5, 8pm. $10–$18. 707.527.4343.
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BEYOND THE BARRICADES Like his character Jean Valjean, Chris Hohmann has endured great struggle and redemption.
'Les Misérables makes a huge impression," says actor Christopher Hohmann of Santa Rosa, describing the beloved stage musical. "It's the story of how bad things can be in the world. But it's also the story of how some people survive that, how they get on with their lives."
In the soaring, heart-rending 1980 musical adaptation by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg—as in the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo—the longsuffering ex-convict Jean Valjean endures a lifetime of hardship, loss, isolation and misunderstanding. Somehow, he prevails, discovering a sense of purpose in spite of the crushing obstacles of his life.
Hohmann identifies with that. A lot.
Valjean's perseverance is just one of the characteristics that attracted the 20-year-old actor to the role, which he tackles in Santa Rosa Junior College's winter production of Les Misérables, running Nov. 22–Dec. 8. Hohmann first encountered the show while a sophomore at El Molino High School, playing the part of the bishop who gives Jean Valjean a second chance. Ironically, Hohmann now takes on the part of Valjean, having had his own fair share of second chances.
"I grew up with an alcoholic mother," he explains, matter-of-factly. "She's bipolar and partially blind, has been in and out of jail, and all of my life I was in and out of different foster homes, starting at the age of seven. If my life were a movie or something, people would describe it as, you know, being 'forced into a life of abuse and violence.' Which I guess was pretty much true. I've been homeless. I've lived in public shelters. I've been in jail. I've lived on the streets.
"But through all of that," he adds, "I stayed in school, even when I was homeless. I kept up pretty good grades. Took singing lessons. I just tried to keep moving forward, because I didn't know what else to do. So yeah, I definitely connect with the character of Jean Valjean."
Hohmann learned early to watch out for danger. When he was five, he suffered a concussion when another boy in a local homeless shelter threw him to the ground. When he and his half-sisters were taken from their mother not long after that incident, he spent some time at the Valley of the Moon Children's Home. Eventually, he entered the foster system, only occasionally reuniting with his mother.
"That was the beginning of my induction into the lifestyle of a foster kid," he says. "You learn quickly what it's like to be on your own. The kids in the system have all been abused and neglected, one way or another, and they tend to take it out on each other. You learn in a hurry that you have to be strong."
Through the early part of Hohmann's life, his father was mostly out of the picture. But after a few years in foster homes, Hohmann and his dad were suddenly reunited. A longtime keyboard musician who'd performed with the likes of Carlos Santana and others, Hohmann's father was then operating a barbershop in Guerneville.
"That's when I finally got to know my dad," Hohmann says, "which was really cool. He was a respectable kind of guy, a working professional. He taught me how to fish, how to shake hands with people to get their respect. He was a drinker, though. He had a lot of problems."
Over the next few years, Hohmann bounced back and forth between his father, foster homes, his mother and the streets, where his mom still lives most of the time. A few years ago, his dad died of lung cancer. In spite of it all, Hohmann graduated from high school and was accepted into Sonoma State University.
There, facing an accusation from a fellow student of unwanted sexual contact, he was arrested and spent time in county jail. Determined to turn his life around with both sobriety and counseling, he's now working hard on his dream of being an actor and singer, with the help of Les Misérables director Laura Downing-Lee and a massive student and community cast.
"Laura has put together a great team," Hohmann says. "There are some incredible makeup artists, prop designers, set builders, everything. It's amazing to be onstage with these huge pieces of scenery flying into place. There will be a lot of interesting pyrotechnics and some pretty cool elements of realism in the fight scenes."
And then there's Valjean, a role coming fully equipped with some of the most gorgeous and recognizable songs in modern Broadway history, and one that mirrors Hohmann's own troubled life.
"I did see my mom the other day," he says. "She came to a rehearsal and watched for a while." Unfortunately, he adds, she won't be able to see the actual show, as she's about to begin serving a jail sentence. But she did get to see him sing.
"That was nice," Hohmann admits. "I think she's kind of proud of me."