There is no doubt that wherever it plays, whether the production is amateur or professional, audiences love “Les Miserables.”
The almost-opera, called a “sing-through” musical, is a close second to “The Phantom of the Opera” in Broadway longevity. It has been performed all over the world. The London production has been running continuously since 1985, there have been two anniversary concerts (10th and 25th) and, after an initial Broadway run of 16 years (1987 to 2003), with one revival from 2006 to ’08 and another planned for the spring of 2014, it would seem that there is no generation gap in fans of “Les Miz”, who just keep coming and coming back.
One of the first non-professional regional productions opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Mainstage Auditorium. The initial run of 13 scheduled performances has been increased to 15 with several already sold out.
Obviously, sight unseen (and sound unheard), everybody wants to see the massive musical created from Victor Hugo’s equally massive novel(s) by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyricist Herbert Kretzmer and authors Schonberg and Alain Boublil.
Director David Case assembled a cast of 39, based understandably on vocal ability and, for the most part, all 13 leading players are equal to that task. As an ensemble, the aggregation of students, prisoners, villagers, police, factory workers, prostitutes and general rabble combined to deliver a powerful sound, especially on the Prologue and Finale and the always-stirring “One Day More.”
The incredibly daunting role of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who seizes the opportunity to change his life even when it means becoming a fugitive, is played by Stephen M. Salisbury. The talented singer, who fits Hugo’s description of the “burly French peasant,” is definitely up to the challenge. He displays a strong high baritone that colors the melodies clearly as his motives change from revenge to compassion, and delivers the famous “Bring Him Home” (aka “The Prayer”) with an emotional melodic intensity, leaving the final falsetto measures to linger hauntingly in the air. Physically and vocally, Valjean is a demanding assignment which Salisbury aces with flying colors.
His dogged nemesis is Inspector Javert (Aaron Nichols), a martinet to whom the letter of the law is everything. Nichols, who never softens, also has a powerful voice which is well-used in “Stars” when faced with Valjean’s kindness, his reaction is fatal (and requires a large amount of trust between the actor and the stage crew!)
The three ladies who play the most important roles in the life of Valjean are Fantine (Natalie MacRae), a factory worker whose pleas for help he ignores; Cosette (Kathleen Raab), Fantine’s daughter whom he rescues and raises; and Eponine (Samantha Funk), another child of the gutter who gives her life for love. All three have familiar solos and all handle them well.
The comic relief in “Les Miz” is supplied by the Thenardiers (Will Heckaman and Dawn Marie Hagerty) , a coarse couple of thieves always looking out for themselves. Their “Master of the House” and “Beggars at The Feast” say it all about their philosophy of life. Unfortunately, like Heckaman’s solo “Dog Eat Dog,” the lyrics are mostly unintelligible.
Marius (Mike Bogdan), a young student, falls instantly in love with Cosette, who returns his affection just as quickly (“A Heart Full of Love”). Marius and fellow student Enjolras (Sean Leyes, who has an especially powerful baritone,) lead an ill-fated revolution which begins with the familiar, lockstep flag-waving first act finale.
Orchestra director Rebecca A. Wilson and her 18 musicians are somewhere else in the building, seen briefly before and after the show via the video camera that links them with the singers. They are a much better orchestra than SBCT has had to date, but the tempos all seem the same which, in a “sung-through musical,” is like delivering all the dialogue at the same pace and tends to make the three-hour running time seem even longer. This also is true of the staging, which is mostly static, especially whenever there is a crowd.
The set no longer can use the turntable which made the many scenes flow smoothly from one to another. Instead, it relies on hinged flats on which scenes are projected and the addition of a few set pieces to designate location changes. The change works well and seems fairly flexible. Greta Fisher’s moody lighing design is a definite asset.
The costumes are mostly the requisite drab but some of the blowsier prostitutes (and Madame Thenardier) came dangerously close to wardrobe malfunctions on opening night. Stand up, ladies!
Then there are the wigs. Valjean must deal with two that fit very badly and one hilariously dreadful red beard. Fantine, dragged off to sell her hair, exits with long black locks and returns with short brown hair. Ditto Cosette. First seen with bouncing blonde ringlets, she is reunited with Marius and sports straight brown hair.
Giving credit where credit is due, however, the cast, crew and orchestra obviously worked long and hard to recreate the world of Jean Valjean. Whatever the flaws, there is no doubt the opening night audience was thrilled with the local “Les Miz.”
“LES MISERABLES” plays through Aug. 3 in the theater at 403 N. Main St. South Bend. For show times and reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org