Sunday, June 22, 2014

Don't Miss Les Miserables

by Matthew Falduto

Cedar Rapids - Les Miserables is an epic. The novel upon which the musical is based is over 1000 pages. The musical condenses it, of course, but the songs soar and the stakes are always high, continuing the grand nature of the story. Audiences have been carried to emotional highs and lows by the show since it first debuted in 1985. For so many, it is their favorite musical. I first saw it at Hancher many years ago and was completely blown away. So last night at the theatre, I knew what to expect, knew the story and the songs, having sung along with my well-worn CD on many a solo car trip. In contrast, Rachel, my 13 year old daughter, had never seen the show, her only exposure being a couple of friends singing part of ‘Red and Black’ in the hallways of her junior high. Together we walked through the doors of Theatre Cedar Rapids excited to view their production of Les Miserables.

A quick synopsis: Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean, who was sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child. As the show opens, he is released on parole, but his status as a convict makes it impossible for him to get work. He steals silver from the Bishop, gets captured and is about to be sent back to prison, when the Bishop forgives him and charges him with using the stolen silver to live a better life. He becomes mayor and a business owner, but is still pursued by Javert, the inspector whose black and white view of the world does not allow for forgiveness or second chances. Along the way, we meet other characters: Fantine, a single mother whose daughter Cosette is rescued by Jean Valjean from the criminal Thenadiers; Eponine, daughter of the Thenadiers whose unrequited love for Marius is perhaps the most heartbreaking story in the show; and Enjolras, leader of the student revolutionaries, who deals with Marius’ torn loyalties between the revolution and his love for Cosette. That wasn’t as quick a synopsis as I intended, but did I mention the musical is an epic?

As we sat in our seats waiting for the show to begin, Rachel noted the sound of horses clip clopping. This was the first hint of Gerard Estella’s amazing sound design. We would later be treated to a thrilling battle and water sounds that transported us to the sewers beneath Paris. The scenic design by Bret Gothe was also excellent, utilizing a city scape as a backdrop for the action, and an easily moveable two piece barricade for the show’s climatic scenes. Little details like the streetlamps brought a verisimilitude to the stage design. The bridge used in Javert’s final moments was perfectly done as well.

The show opens with Jean Valjean and the other convicts working and lamenting their lives of bondage. In another example of Estella’s excellent sound design, we hear the convicts’ chains clinking. Every line in Les Miserables is sung; from the first notes, we are greeted with strong voices. I think that may be one of the most impressive aspects of this show – not only do the principal actors provide soaring vocals, but every single voice in the show was pitch perfect.

Let’s talk about the principals for a few minutes. Lara Wasserman tears through the agony that is Fantine’s short time on stage. When she sings “There was a time…”, we see a light and innocence in her eyes, and with the next line “…and then it all went wrong”, we see shadows and regret fill those same eyes. It’s simply one example of the exquisite acting that permeates the show. Jared Rogers, a professional opera singer, is magnificent as Jean Valjean, hitting every perfect note and bringing an emotional physicality to the role that is alternately thrilling and heartbreaking. Rogers is particularly good in his scenes with Javert. Their voices create a powerful dissonance during the confrontation after Fantine’s death. Adam Nardini perfectly embodies the rigid Javert, and his powerful voice and excellent acting puts a certain Hollywood superstar who portrayed the role in the movie to shame. As he sang “This I swear by the stars”, I had chills. Nikki Stewart, a Kirkwood Community College student, gives a heart rending performance as the doomed Eponine. When she sang with anguish, “All my life, I’ve only been pretending,” I gasped with a greater understanding of the character than I had ever known. Time after time, the performers' interpretations of the songs were fresh and original, simply mesmerizing to this fan who has heard every song a million times before.

One of the few flaws of the book is the love story of Marius and Cosette. It often pales in comparison to the love Eponine shows for Marius, and we’re never quite sure why in the world Marius would choose Cosette over the gutsy Eponine. However, in this production, through excellent character work by Julia Simons and David Wasserman as the lovely couple, and an assist by Rogers as Valjean, I believed in their love for the first time. We see real depth to Cosette through her relationship with her stepfather, and that allows us to see her as more than just a pretty girl. When she insists to Valjean that she is not a little girl anymore, Simons’ characterization allows us to believe in her frustration and we sympathize with her plight. David Wasseman conveys Maruis’ feelings for Cosette with just an intense gaze, and because we understand the depth of her character, we believe that Cosette and Marius are in love, and that just adds to the tragedy of Eponine’s unrequited love.

Ken Van Egdon and Tracie Hodina are excellent as the duplicitous Thenadiers. Both milk the much needed comedy these roles provide. Their "Master of the House" is a master class in comedic song. Another supporting character, Enjolras, is powerfully realized by Aaron Brewer. His combines a potent voice and a commanding physicality to create the leader of the revolutionaries. One of the enjoyable facets of being a reviewer is watching the local talents grow and find greater confidence over the years. I’ve seen Brewer in many shows, and it’s been fun to watch him grow into the fantastic performer he is.

I would remiss to not mention Sophie Lindwell and Aaron Berta who played Little Cosette and Gavroche. Lindwell’s beautiful voice made "Castle on a Cloud" a joy. And Berta was fantastic as the scrappy Gavroche.

The lighting design by Derek Easton was well done. Particularly effective were the church lights that came back each time Valjean was wrestling with his conscience. The battle scenes at the barricades were well created with lights and sound, and the sewer lighting was extremely effective. I also loved the moon light during Eponine’s song.

The audience leaped to their feet at the end of the show and I was among them. Anyone who reads my reviews knows I don’t give standing ovations lightly, but there’s no doubt this show deserved one. The direction was wonderful, the performances heartbreaking, and every technical aspect was spot on. But perhaps the best review I can give is to tell you about is my 13 year old daughter leaning forward in her seat, mesmerized and hanging on every word, tears standing in her eyes, completely struck to the core by the story and music before her. Do not miss Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of Les Miserables.

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