Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Manatee Players has over 50 people on stage. As he did with Miss Saigon, Producing Artistic Director Rick Kerby cast for vocal strength, not unreasonable in a through-sung show. It is amazing how well every single one of the leading roles is sung. Many people in small roles or in the ensemble are well known to community theater audiences in leading parts. Over 200 people auditioned for the show, such was the desire to be part of it. When casting was announced and the leading part of Jean Valjean went to Kenn Rapczynski, debuting at Manatee Players, some people were saying "Who?" Mr. Rapczynski is coming off a 13-year hiatus from performing and he is giving a performance that is better than at least one of the Jean Valjeans I saw in the original New York production. His voice is definitely a tenor, most comfortable in the upper reaches of the role where other memorable Valjeans had to strain. Valjean's prayer "Bring Him Home" sits in the easiest part of Rapczynski's singing range and is one of the most beautifully sung I have heard. His acting is good, but secondary to his singing of the role. No one will ask "who?" ever again.
As Marius, James Hyde, also making his local stage debut, looks very much like someone a young girl could fall instantly in love with and sings as beautifully as a juvenile should. In the cast bios he is quoted as thanking his mum (he is from Surrey, England) "for letting him sing in the shower." Opposite him as adult Cosette is Anna Trinci, singing equally strongly. Their duets and contributions to major ensembles are a complete pleasure.
David Walker and Stephanie Woodman-Costello as Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, along with Holly Rizzo as their daughter Eponine, round out the leading cast. David delivers "Master of House" as the showstopper it should be, with an assist from Stephanie. Their bios mention that they have a history of playing romantic couples opposite each other, and the chemistry is much in evidence. If playing such an important role weren't enough, David Walker designed the brilliant costumes. Holly Rizzo chalks up another great performance after last year's Kim in Miss Saigon. She makes her contributions to "A Heart Full of Love" as important as they must be for the dramatic arc, and then strongly delivers her two numbers at the top of act two.
Also making vital contributions in less rewarding roles are Ken Basque, Brian Chunn, Rodd Dyer, Jason Ellis, Ritz Mazer, Travis Rogers, Craig Weiskerger and many others. At the performance I attended, Young Cosette was Laura Schmeichel and Gavroche was Maverick Wolf, both of whom share the roles. Both are every bit as excellent as their adult cast mates.
The outstanding musical leadership of Music Director Aaron Cassette is at the service of all these fine singers, assisted by Rick Bogner on second keyboard; Victor Mongillo, trumpet; Teri Booth, reeds; and John Januszewski handling percussion duties.
Kirk Hughes has designed outstanding sets for this panoramic show to play on. Much of it is contained in a basic frame setting with two rotating columns that change the venue as needed, but also contains an elaborate setting for the barricade scenes of act two. Lighting design by Joseph P. Oshry also is a major plus, giving variety to the various settings as needed. Costumes by David W. Walker, mentioned above, would have been amazing in a college or regional theater production, and are even more so in a community theater. Sound design by Tom Sell, mentioned by several people as being problematic at the official opening night, was much improved by this first Sunday matinee, all major singers were able to be heard clearly.
It is impossible to properly praise Mr. Kerby's contribution. He has been at the head of Manatee Players since July 2003 and has directed countless glorious productions, but this has to be his crowning glory, at least so far. He has directed superb productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals such as Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George, both of which were taken on the competition circuit and won major awards. Les Misérables is a huge sprawling show and yet he manages to keep it focused and allow audiences who might not be familiar with it to follow it. Kudos to Production stage manager Kristin Ribble.
Next up on the Main Stage are Grease, Young Frankenstein and then Peter Pan.
Manatee Players presents Les Misérables through August 25 at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton; 941 748-0111; manateeplayers.com
Direction and Choreography--Rick Kerby