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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A Scaled Down Les Misérables from Balagan Theatre Has Its Pleasures

Also see David's review of Stu for Silverman


The Cast
Photo by Jeff Carpenter
Those in solitary confinement since the mid-1980s advent of the stage musicalization of Victor Hugo's epic novel Les Misérables by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and Herbert Kretzmer will not find a plot summary contained in this review; that's what Wikipedia exists for. The much-staged, recently filmed and Oscar-nominated piece is not this writer's favorite musical, but I appreciate the sweeping tale of one man's long vendetta and chase after another against the backdrop of a changing and war-torn 19th century France, offering a whole slew of meaty vocal and acting roles. And in Erickson Theatre, an intimate house maybe one tenth the size of those you normally see Les Mis staged in, director Jake Groshong has impressively encapsulated the requisite visual sweep of the piece, and shoehorned some thirty plus bodies onstage without making it look over-crowded (due in no small measure to Ahren Buhmann's stunning environmental set). Groshong's casting, however, is variable, rendering the overall impact less impressive than some of its best parts.

Recently returned to Seattle after a Broadway sojourn of several years, past musical theatre mainstay Louis Hobson (Balagan's incoming artistic director as well) shows off a new maturity in his acting and singing the role of beleaguered ex-prisoner Jean Valjean whose compassion and bravery impact many of the lives he touches through several decades. Hobson gives his considerable all in embracing the role, including the notable vocal range of Valjean's key song "Bring Him Home." Though the still youthful actor is perhaps a decade away from hitting enough life experience to truly convince as the character, he has enough stage heft to carry the demands of the role. Contrastingly, I was greatly let down by the variable vocal prowess and overdone dramatics of Michael Dunlap as Inspector Javert, the Coyote, if you will, to Hobson's Road Runner. Those who found fault with Russell Crowe's shortcomings in the film version may find just as much to quibble with here. And after all the hub-bub surrounding the relatively small role of Fantine, a woman Valjean inadvertently sets on the road to ruin, due to Anne Hathaway's touted Oscar-win in the role, Tessa Archer proves too youthful and dramatically undernourished on the character's musical soliloquy "I Dreamed a Dream," though clearly having the vocal chops to sell it.

The most absolutely sure-footed performances come from those cast as the Thenardiers, those low-life scavengers Valjean first meets when he rescues Cosette, the young daughter of his doomed friend Fantine, from their clutches. Having seen this show professionally performed at least a dozen times over the years, I have never seen these roles played with as much texture, detail and bravado as Robert Scherzer and Rebecca M. Davis bring to the Erickson stage, and their big number, "Master of the House," the most rousingly staged moment in the show, lifts the energy of act one into a stratosphere where it hovers for a good while afterward. As their plucky yet doomed (a lot of the characters in this are) daughter Eponine, Danielle Barnum is another MVP of the production, and subtly acts the hell out of her "On My Own" solo, while Taylor Clark is an appealing rough and tumble scrapper as her kid brother Gavroche.

As the young romantics of the tale, the student Marius and Fantine's daughter/Valjean's ward Cosette, Brian Giebler and Shaye Hodgins are endearing and never insipid, handling their young romantics part of the tale admirably. Kudos to the young Cosette of Anna Imehana Lillnoe Ostrem, who is as unaffected and un-cloying a child performer as you will see. Heath Saunders impresses as the fiery Enjolras, and amongst a strong acting/singing ensemble, Lindsey Larson, Bo Mellinger, Trish LaGrua, Gina Marie Russell, Jeff Orton, Mike Spee and Justin Thornton stand out.

Emmett Buhmann's lighting design vividly helps create the many varied locales in France, and Lauren Karbowski's costumes prove effective, though I kept feeling Javert's military uniform and his beard made him look like General Ulysses S. Grant. Nathan Young's musical direction of the impressively large 14-piece orchestra is of a high order, and Lisa Finkral's sound design should be aspired to by some of our larger companies.

Les Misérables is bound to blossom further in its run, and those hungering for more of this brand of musical cuisine can catch the holiday-timed Village Theatre production starting in November, but I have to confess, I am waiting breathlessly for the Seattle premiere of Balagan's Halloween timed Carrie The Musical>.

Les Misérables by Balagan Theatre performs at the Erickson Theatre through September 28th. For tickets or information visit them online at www.balagantheatre.org.



- David Edward Hughes



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