Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Les Misérables
Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music

The Cast
Musicals presented at the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) always feature splendidly talented student performers who rarely disappoint. Their current production, Les Misérables, is no exception and does showcase many stunning voices and meticulously detailed acting. This production is noteworthy for the many risks that are taken with its staging, which produce both brilliant highs and some memorable disappointments.

Les Misérables is a musical adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel of the same name 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 connected to that of 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 in itself.

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 Schonberg 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 some melodies are repeated too often for some tastes, there are numerous distinct examples of wonderful music and skilled lyrics to provide sufficient variation.

At CCM, director Aubrey Berg has gone for a minimalist approach for Les Misérables, while also taking lots of risks with his staging. The results vary widely. On the pro side, the complex story is told with great clarity, and the internal struggles of the characters are clearly communicated. The bawdy humor of the Thénardiers, much in the vein of the recent film adaptation, comes across extremely well, and the gritty, brutal nature of the setting feels authentic and appropriate. Many of the blocking choices also make for some beautiful stage pictures and dramatic intensity, including "Confrontation," "A Heart Full of Love" (featuring a beautiful Romeo and Juliet balcony scene), and a uniquely staged "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables."

However, there are risks that don't pay off as well, including the odd inclusion of the ghost of Fantine at the end of act one and the sometimes distracting movement of set pieces during solo song moments. The true culprit, however, is the breakneck pace and rushed transitions, as well as brisk musical tempos, which make for an efficient Les Misérables, but also one with a somewhat diminished emotional impact. There were also a few late or missed musical entrances and fumbled props on opening night, which is uncharacteristic of CCM, and likely a result of the speed of this mounting. Still, the messages and quality of the piece continue to prevail, and this different and fresh approach has its rewards.

Diane Lala's limited choreography, mostly for the Thénardiers, is apt and fun. Special kudos go to k. Jenny Jones for excellent fight choreography. Stephen Goers capably leads a great sounding 17-piece orchestra.

CCM has double-cast the two leading characters, with the opening night actors reviewed here. Blaine Alden Krauss is a touching, tender, and impassioned Jean Valjean, and sings beautifully throughout. His vocals are especially strong in the higher range, and he impresses with "Valjean's Soliloquy" and "Bring Him Home." As Javert, the policeman who pursues the convict throughout his life, Collin Kessler is appropriately authoritative and a powerful, yet controlled, singer. As Fantine, Kimber Sprawl over sings the role's material in the "American Idol" style, thus losing the requisite vulnerability and subtlety of the character. Matthew Paul Hill and Emily Schexnaydre get all the expected laughs and more as the Thénardiers, and are true crowd pleasers. Eric Geil is a suitably eager and conflicted Marius, and Stephanie Jae Park gives the somewhat underwritten role of Cosette some welcome depth. They have solid chemistry together and supply first-rate vocals. Lawson Young turns in possibly the best performance in the show as Eponine. The role can sometimes come across as sappy, but Ms. Young provides an emotionally layered, thoughtful, and sympathetic take on the part, and sings with nuanced skill. Ben Biggers sounds a bit too modern as Enjolras, but has great stage presence and energy. The ensemble does very well overall, and the choral work is stunning throughout.

Mark Halpin's scenic design consists of a single unit set, but with pieces (including a staircase unit and a jigsaw-like section for the barricade) that can slide into differing positions. Various props are stored on shelves within the set. It is both visually appropriate while also being slightly eccentric, and at all times functional, and fits into the minimalist approach. The apt lighting is by David LaRose and includes some worthwhile effects for the battles and other scenes. Dean Mogle's costumes are attractive and suitable, though the lady's dresses for the wedding scene seem a bit commonplace.

Les Misérables is an engaging tale that elicits deep emotions from audiences due to its moving story and glorious songs. CCM's production is a departure in many ways from typical productions, but has many strong assets, despite a few letdowns along the way. CCM's production runs until through 9, 2014. For tickets and more information, call (513) 556-2283.

Photo: Mark Lyons

-- Scott Cain

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