Maine State Music Theatre's Les Misérables Soars
Inhabiting a stunning new production by scenic designer Robert Klingelhoefer, the twenty-seven-actor ensemble transports the audience to 19th century France and brings them to their feet weeping and cheering at the close. Robin's emphasis is on the redemptive themes of the drama, and his take on the barricades and the last scene are profoundly moving. His staging is brisk and propulsive; the tempi he chooses are often drivinga decision that increases the fatalistic elements of the drama at the same time that it lends poignancy to the contrastingly tender moments. His choreography is economical and evocative and he excels at creating counterpoint between actors.
This tension is explosively palpable between Valjean and Javert, who are played brilliantly by Gregg Goodbrod and Curt Dale Clark. Goodbrod succeeds in the difficult task of transforming Valjean from bitter convict to loving saint. His is a restrained, luminous performance that ultimately radiates inner grace. His supple tenor is musical and emotive with his show-stopping "Bring Him Home" stirringly sung.
As his foil, Curt Dale Clark is a monumental Javert. Tall and imposing, he looms above his prey with a self-righteous fervor that is as terrifying as it is ultimately self-destructive. He plays Javert as an honorable zealot whose world shatters when his understanding of true goodness is challenged. His suicide becomes a proud, wrenching lurch into the abyss. Vocally, he brings to the role a forceful, richly nuanced baritone, incisive diction, and an arresting sense of phrasing.
As the young lovers, Siri Howard (Cosette) and Max Quinlan (Marius), an offstage couple as well, make the most of their scenes. Howard possesses a melting soprano with a secure top that shines in "A Heart Full of Love." Quinlan's Marius is a gentle lover and a stalwart revolutionary. His "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," sung against a ghostly backdrop of his dead comrades, is expansive and eloquent.
Manna Nichols plays Eponine with a blend of saucy gaminerie and winsome vulnerability. Her powerful mezzo-soprano tugs at the heart in "On My Own" and her uncut "A Little Fall of Rain." Heidi Kettenring gives a touching and dignified performance as Fantine and is particularly effective in the final tableau, though her tone sometimes tends to spread under pressure. Tyler Hanes is a noble Enjolras, supported by a contingent of students (not individually credited), among whom Grantaire, Combeferre, and Courfeyrac etch outstanding vocal and dramatic portraits.
The Thénardiers, portrayed by Gary Troy and Abby Smith, make their characters amusing without being camp. Together with Robin, they find a number of new gags, some of which are outrageously funny. The only quibble this reviewer has is the decision to keep the Cockney accents for the Thénardiers, while the rest of the cast eschews the British dialect often used in the musical.
The young, non-Equity cast members, especially Sophie Calderwood as Young Cosette and Alec Shiman as Gavroche, sing exceptionally well and turn in spirited performances. Indeed, the entire ensemble, which is used so creatively in a wide range of roles, is impressive in vocal range and ability to delineate colorful characters, each a well-crafted contribution to a powerful whole.
All in all, Les Misérables is a demanding showa completely sung-through contemporary opera with rich orchestrations and challenging vocal requirements. The MSMT production is up to the rigors. Music director and conductor Edward Reichert displays a strong command of the score. Despite being a little heavy on the brass, the ten-piece instrumental ensemble plays with passion, though the occasional off-pitch trumpet struck some discordant notes at the performance reviewed.
Robert Klingelhoefer's spare and elegant set with its metal bridge and barricades, tiered elevations and ramps, and dominating circular window creates an appropriate sculptural effect. Jeff Koger's lighting design with its crisscrossed beams and star-sprinkled backdrops becomes an active force in the drama. Kurt Alger's trim and historically accurate costumes convey the passage of time in the story. Resident sound designer Colin Whitely achieves a fairly seamless vocal-instrumental balance. Only in the act one finale with its fugue-like quintet overlaid on the chorus do the individual voices get lost in the overall washout of sound.
MSMT's production of Les Misérables is a soaring experience. One enters the theatre in anticipation of a rendezvous with a musical favorite and one leaves with much, much more. At the curtain one feels a rush of cathartic emotion and a surge of exaltation at having witnessed a tale told with supreme craft.
Note: at the June 28th matinee which this reviewer attended, the barricade scene was interrupted by house fire alarms which mandated the clearing of the stage, followed by partial evacuation and then resettling of the audience. The twenty-minute commotion, which happily proved to be a false alarm, required the cast to restart the drama from Eponine's death. That they were able to do so without sacrificing a jot of intensity and that it took only a minute or so for the audience to become completely re-immersed in the play are tributes to the unflappable professionalism of the company.
Les Misérables, which is Maine State Music Theatre's second production of the 2013 summer season, runs through July 13 at the Pickard Theatre, Bowdoin College campus, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, Maine, 207-725-8769. For performance and ticket information, visit www.msmt.org.
--Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold