Fresh and Finely-Wrought Production of a Broadway Classic

United StatesUnited States  Claude-Michel Schonberg/Alain Boublil, Les Misérables: Soloists, Aubrey Berg (director), Stephen Goers (musical director), Diane Lala (choreography), Mark Halpin (scene designer), Dean Mogle (costume designer), David LaRose (lighting designer), Jeremy J. Lee (sound designer), University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music, Patricia Corbett Theater. Cincinnati, Ohio. 28.2.2014 (RDA).

 Les Misérables is unquestionably and unavoidably present in the consciousness of musical theatre devotees. The 1980 musical (perhaps best termed “pop opera”) saw the light of day in Paris before anyone on this side of the Atlantic knew about its authors, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. Now, after thirty-four years, three Tony Awards, several major productions and tours worldwide, plus a film of recent vintage, the show is on stage at the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music, delivered in a large-scale production staged by Aubrey Berg.

 The story of Les Misérables is one of loss and recovery, of unspeakable injustice and righteous retribution, writ large over a narrative that spans a lifetime or two. Victor Hugo thought it his literary masterpiece, and the stage version is a carefully-crafted entertainment. With battle scenes, whorehouses and jails, religious tableaux, and family intimacy, Les Misérables has it all: a hero whom you can’t help but love and a snarky villain whom you hope will die in dire fashion. There are young lovers, comic villains and enchanting children in the through-composed score, and the operatic conceit allows for action and music to flow uninterruptedly. In this epic novel turned into a musical entertainment, tunefulness abounds, ensemble anthems alternating with showstopping soliloquies.

 This production features a cast of some fifty singing-dancing dynamos who enact the story of Jean Valjean, a Frenchman condemned to years in jail for the crime of stealing a piece of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. Against the sprawling backdrop of France emerging from a world-changing revolution whose principles are beginning to collapse, and moving to the 1832 Paris Uprising and beyond, the characters of Les Misérables provide young actors with formidable opportunities to bring on their best game. Playing over two dozen supporting roles, members of the large ensemble make love and war, fight and die in the barricades, carouse, sing and dance, and sustain the interest of the audience for nearly three hours.

 Julian Decker is a remarkably strong Valjean, with dramatic gravitas that far surpasses what one could reasonably expect from a young man his age. The voice is sterling, sizeable, rock-solid on top—capable of a melting tenor mezza-voce and full high B’s. Noah J. Ricketts portrays Javert not merely as the bad cop you love to hate, but as a conflicted low-level military wannabe out to score his big catch. He is a formidable nemesis, ramrod in posture and spiritually vacuous. The young actor also has a fine high baritone voice that serves him well in his final soliloquy.

 As Fantine, Kimber Elayne Sprawl is superb; “I Dreamed a Dream” is a terrific vehicle for her luscious mezzo-soprano. Stephanie Jae Parks is an elegant Cosette, with a silvery soprano that easily rides over the ensemble. Lawson Young’s Eponine all but hijacks the opening of Act II with “On my own,” and Eric Geil is a sensitive, believable and handsome Marius.  Matthew Paul Hill makes Thenardier both hilarious and hateful, as does Emily Schexnaydre as Madame Thenardier, his partner in life, low-level crime and hijinks.  Ben Biggers makes the supporting role of Enjolras memorable, and Jonah Sorscher, Lili Shires and Anna Silvius, are enchanting as Gavroche, young Cosette and young Eponine. Most of these young principals tackle roles created for seasoned adult performers, and emerge as fresh as roses at the end of this grueling musical marathon.

 The production itself is sizeable and professional by any standard. Mark Halpin’s immense set is a massive collage of found objects that reinforces the story, transforming itself and permitting scene to follow scene without interruption. Dean Mogle’s costumes, exquisite in detail, clarify potentially confusing plot details by defining character, age, and the passing of time. The dance sequences are superbly choreographed by Diane Lala. Kudos to the accomplished wig and makeup designer Kaitlyn A. Adams, who convincingly turns fresh-faced college seniors into 19th-century French jail inmates, soldiers, priests, whores and innkeepers.

 Steve Goers conducts the sonorous ensemble of 17 musicians with a firm hand, and masterfully led an idiomatic reading of the score. Aubrey Berg shepherded these young people through weeks of rehearsals to flesh out their characters’ inner lives—the sign of a selfless, great director. Keeping the entire undertaking tightly reined in and mercifully devoid of any Broadway clichés, Berg delivers a fresh and finely-wrought production.

 Rafael de Acha