Also see Scott's review of Anything Goes
It can be frustrating, even sad, when a production of a first rate musical has a very good cast, but is let down by poor direction. This is unfortunately the case with the current mounting of Les Misérables at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). Worthwhile performances, a stunning score, and a moving story are all muted by odd and confusing directorial choices throughout the show.
Les Misérables is a musical adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel and follows the life of Jean Valjean in early 1800s France. After serving nineteen years in prison for stealing some bread and attempting to escape, Valjean breaks parole to live a life free from the stigma attached to an ex-convict. After he is shown mercy by a priest who has the power to send him back to prison, Valjean dedicates his life to God. The remainder of the complex story follows the character as he shows mercy and kindness in return to others, such as Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Javert.
This musical is a gripping and emotional tale of redemption, and is epic storytelling at its best. Love stories, social and historical commentary, and a tale of Christian morality are only a few of the elements contained in Hugo's book that are effectively transferred to the stage by creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. The fact that so many characters are sufficiently developed is no small accomplishment.
Les Misérables is the best example of the "all-sung pop opera" style that dominated the 1980s and 1990s on Broadway. The score, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, has produced modern theater classics such as "Bring Him Home," "On My Own" and "I Dreamed a Dream." The soaring melodies beautifully match the characters and settings, and stir emotions within audience members. Though several melodies are repeated too often for some tastes, there are numerous distinct examples of breathtaking music and skilled lyrics to provide sufficient variation.
Unfortunately, typically solid NKU Director Ken Jones supplies lackluster support of his cast here. The bad choices in blocking and character presentation are numerous, but here's a sampling of some of the most frustrating. There are no projections or any other visual cues to help convey the passage of time, which is pivotal to following this complex show. The scenes with Fantine prior to her arrest are all staged with extreme passivity by the character, with her barely reacting to the cruelty bestowed on her. The ending of "Who Am I?" is likewise staged with passive rather than engaged blocking. The end of "Confrontation" is extremely confusing, and would lead most persons not knowing the story to believe that Javert is dead at that point. During "One Day More," Cosette puzzlingly joins the students in their "march," even though she doesn't know them (except for Marius), doesn't know about their cause, and isn't physically there. During "Look Down," Gavroche sings "That's Eponine, she knows her way about," but Mr. Jones has Eponine off stage, so the audience can't use the lyric as a context clue for clarification (which is needed even more so due to color-blind casting). Another lyric that is ignored is when Enjolras tells the women and fathers of children to leave the barricade. They don't, and instead get killed (making "Turning," which follows that song, odd as well). Jones gets credit for smooth transitions, a quick pace, and an effectively tender and emotional staging of the ending, but this is a case of missed opportunities and consideration of one's audience.
Roderick Justice's limited choreography relies on synchronized moves too often, making it feel non-organic for this piece, but is otherwise apt and pleasing. Jamey Strawn capably leads a great sounding 12-piece orchestra.
NKU Assistant Professor of Voice Jason Vest portrays Jean Valjean in a Guest Artist arrangement. His vocals are much more in the classical style rather than musical theater, but he easily handles the role's demanding singing, and is an adequate actor. He especially impresses with heartfelt deliveries of "Valjean's Soliloquy" and "Bring Him Home." As Javert, the policeman who pursues the convict throughout his life, Brandon Huber demonstrates a very strong singing voice and provides many effective acting choices throughout. Despite being a victim of some of the questionable direction, Kathryn Miller brings the needed vulnerability to the role of Fantine and is a splendid singer. Noah Berry provides excellent vocals and acting as Marius in one of the show's best performances. As Cosette, Sophia Dewald is a bit too formal in her singing, but is overall fine in a somewhat underwritten part. Miki Abraham (Eponine) provides depth and a high level of endearment to the character and skillfully sings some of the show's most recognizable songs. Jack Manion and Melissa Cathcart portray the Thénardiers in a manner which emphasizes the vulgar and cruel nature of the pair rather than for laughs, which is a worthwhile interpretation. Cason Walden has great stage presence and energy, and showcases praiseworthy vocals as Enjolras. The ensemble does very well, and the choral work is highlighted in several numbers.
Rob Kirby's scenic design centers on the versatile use of a curved wedge, which is used as the barricade, the pier, and the prison ship and more. Smaller set pieces and props are also used to create an overall simple but effective design. The lighting by Bobby Harrell too often leaves singers in shadows, sometimes to the point of the audience not knowing which person within a crowd is singing, or which character an obvious singer is. The costumes by Ronnie Chamberlain are apt and attractive. The execution of the sound design by Kevin Havlin was a bit spotty at the performance reviewed.
Les Misérables is an engaging tale that elicits deep emotions from audiences due to its moving story and glorious songs. NKU's production boasts a strong cast, but many counterproductive directorial and lighting choices affect the level of clarity of the piece. If you see this production, and are a newcomer to the musical, be sure to read the synopsis in the program first.
Les Misérables continues at NKU in Highland Heights, Kentucky, through March 1, 2015. Tickets may be ordered by calling (859) 572-5464.