Adapted from Victor Hugo's famous novel of the same title, Les Miserables follows the convict Jean Valjean from his release from prison where he served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, until his death as an old man. Over this time runs from the law, becomes a mayor, changes his name a few times, adopts a daughter, encounters a schoolboys' revolution, and so on. It is a story of goodness, humanity, forgiveness and love, and it is one of the most beloved musicals of all time.
Director Rodel Salazar had a huge show to fit into a relatively small space, and though his staging was a little dry and repetitive in places, and he missed some pretty simple opportunities here and there, overall he did a good job of building scenes. And there were a few moments - his wonderfully affecting staging in "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" comes to mind - that just knocked it out of the park.
When Jean Valjean was tossed downstage for his first lines, it was immediately clear that we would be seeing the understudy (Gary LaKind) that evening (though I didn't see the announcement made anywhere in the theatre). And let me just say, everyone should have an understudy like LaKind! He was too young and probably a bit too small of stature for the role, but his clear-as-a-bell tenor navigated Valjean's signature songs with ease, and the depth of emotion he brought to "Bring Him Home" was as simple as it was moving.
As Valjean's counterpart - the relentlessly moralistic gendarme Javert - Jamie Richards missed the mark a bit, as he did not find the stoicism and single-minded certainty that make Javert such a delicious foil. That said, his solos were well-sung and well-acted - I would have liked to see more of the confidence he displayed in those two songs carried through to his recit throughout. But let's face it, even with his faults, Richards still beat Russell Crowe's portrayal all to hell.
As the love triangle developed between Marius (Brad Ellison), Cosette (Bethany Rydzewski) and Eponine (Kryssy Becker), Ellison and Becker seized some of my highest marks for the show. Both have excellent voices that they maneuvered skillfully through some of the most well-known songs. Ellison's Marius was moving and believable in his inner conflict and survivor's guilt alike, and as Eponine, Becker brought her simultaneous strength and vulnerability to bear into a powerful and sympathetic character. And their final farewell to each other in "A Little Fall of Rain" (pictured above) was just about perfect. Cosette is never quite as beloved as poor, martyred-for-love Eponine, but Rydzewski does a fine job overall (but for a few high notes that she'll learn to control with age), and we can see why Marius loves her.
The brash young men of the revolution were well-cast and energetic in all their youthful enthusiasm. With Enjolras (powerfully played by Nick Yocum) as the dynamic idealist at the helm, how could things possibly go wrong? Of course, wrong they do go, and the production does a nice job of giving us a real sense of loss in watching these schoolboys die in the streets (Yeah, spoiler alert, in a play about a failed French revolution, pretty much everyone dies). In particular, the careful construction of the relationship between Grantaire (Garett Michael Harris) and Gavroche (I think it was played by Andrew Fleming the night I was there, but again, the theatre didn't give us any help in these matters) made for a couple of pitch-perfect moments of the human cost of war.
In addition to the student revolutionaries, the chorus was uniformly strong, with lots of energy and excellent harmonies throughout. There were an awful lot of people on that stage sometimes, and they managed to remain engaged and interesting to watch throughout the show.
And of course, who can help but love the broadly comic Thenardiers, this time charmingly played by Dan Rose and Mary Ann Redhage? Rose brought a surprising (and welcome) subtlety to a role that is traditionally played with more mugging and posturing than a pro wrestling match. And Redhage's Madame Thenardier was every bit the raucous showboat, completing the Thenardier package with a great sense of fun.
Unfortunately, Randi Hamilton as Fantine fell far short of the bar set by the rest of her cast mates. With little sense of theatrical truth, Hamilton chose to show us in each moment just how hard she - the actress - was working. She repeatedly got in her own way, emoting and fidgeting and generally pushing too hard to the point that her vocals suffered as well.
When it comes down to it, the orchestra may have been the weakest link in the show. They always felt on the verge of falling apart; they rushed tempos that should have taken their time, and were hopelessly ponderous when they should have picked up the pace.
The costumes by Doris Boris were impressive in their sheer volume, and they served the story well, leading the audience with clarity from place to place. Lucy Meyo's lighting design was often a bit clumsy and exaggerated, but a lot of the kinks seemed to work themselves out for a much stronger second act. And Drew Hall's set design made excellent use of the limited space, addressing a number of this show's challenges with creativity and practicality. The barricade and Javert's bridge were notable standouts in Hall's work.
So, though I can't tell you to go see this production (I couldn't have told you to if I'd reviewed it weeks ago - this show sold out in a big way), I can tell you that, if Stagecrafters is putting out products like this, then the state of community theatre in Royal Oak is in good shape, and I look forward to seeing more from these enthusiastic folks!
The Stagecrafters' Production of Les Miserables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (Director: Rodel Salazar) closes at The Baldwin Theatre right about now: with their final performance at 2:00 on Sunday, September 29. For information on the rest of their season, visit www.stagecrafters.org.