BWW Reviews: At the End of the Day, the Western Carolina LES MISERABLES Delivers Some Notable Performances
Alain Boublil's and Claude-Michel Schonberg's LES MISERABLES is a lengthy work, completely sung through, with a sizeable cast and, according to some critics, equally sizeable bombast; it's as close, with Herbert Kretzmer's English lyrics, to opera as American musical theatre gets. Peculiarly, at the same time, it's often been billed as "the musical for people who don't like musicals" despite its operatic qualities, since it also has everything a television-westerns fan could want - gunfights, duels, bars, women, and a traditional "tough sheriff versus old lawbreaker" plot; it's got all the qualities of "High Noon" on steroids, plus music and minus trains and horses.
And yes, it has its drawbacks, particularly a score consisting of a surprisingly short number of frequently repeated and re-lyricized melodies, one-dimensional characters other than Valjean and Javert, and plot and detail omissions that make some moments of the narrative nearly impossible to follow if you don't know the story (or haven't seen the film, but that's another story) - wait, was that supposed to be a sewer? And how did Javert know that Valjean is so phenomenally strong when the audience had no previous clue? Nonetheless, like most great musicals, it has its points as well as its flaws, especially when sung by a capable cast, and when Valjean is noble, Javert determined, and the Thenardiers are... well, the Thenardiers. (The Thenardiers, in the musical, are characters of such transporting delight that it's a shame Victor Hugo didn't realize they were intended to be comic relief when he wrote the novel.)
Western Carolina University's recent production of LES MISERABLES, directed by Terrence Mann, which ran from April 3 - 6 at the university's Bardo Arts Center, proved to have all of those elements. It had one other key element as well - a cast full of talented students who, despite a relative newness to the stage, proved to be real troupers when it came to several opening night technical issues.
Chase McCall took the lead as Jean Valjean, and proceeded to display some serious acting chops, doing a quite respectable job of aging his way through the production. While he's a fine singer, that's also perhaps his one flaw in this part at the moment, and it's one that is hard to avoid in a college production. Tenor voices mature later in life, and McCall's displayed, naturally, that relative youth that conflicted with the more accurate physical depiction of Valjean's age. In twenty years, he may well own this part. (Until then, however, there are a dozen or more younger lead male parts that will suit him perfectly.) Despite any apparent complaint, however, McCall's "Bring Him Home" was indeed a moving performance of the song that was well-received by an appreciative audience.
Cullen Ries, however, was entirely there as Inspector Javert, and that may be no surprise considering that he was cast and directed by the same. He's a very good younger performer, with some serious range as well as lungs, and if the nuances of his phrasing in "Stars" sounded remarkably familiar to this listener, he certainly borrowed them from the most appropriate source imaginable. Javert's "Soliloquy" prior to his plunge into the Seine was similarly fine and slightly less obeisant to what many would consider the original version. Ries has the ability to make the heavy baritone parts his own, and should work on developing that skill.
Shane Dinan displayed both stage presence and an excellent voice as Marius, and managed to work some real personality into a part that too often feels as if it's only there to be the love interest of Cosette and Eponine.
And then there are the Thenardiers, Will Bryant as the "master of the house" and Alex Hairston as Madame Thenardier, who provided the requisite bald-faced and bawdy comic relief that can only come from the incompetently sinister. Both had a few nice moments of physical comedy, and if their "Master of the House" was one of the tamer versions staged recently, their "Beggars at the Feast" made up for that entirely, with interest. The interplay between Madame Thenardier, one of the servants (Joshua Farrar), and the vast quantity of Pontmercy silver walking out - or not - under the Thenardier skirts was likely the moment deservedly provoking the greatest hilarity in the audience. It's not altogether original for the Thenardiers to poach the Pontmercy property, but the handling here was relatively different and a nice piece of stage business.
Expectations are always that "Castle on a Cloud" will be a show-stopping tearjerker, and Reagan Muvey's young Cosette did not disappoint on that count. Kara Jean White's Gavroche was similarly fine, and it's a shame that the original versions of LES MIS had a much longer solo piece for Gavroche that was discarded, as White, like Gavroche himself, certainly deserved more time.
Fantine, played by Tierney Leigh Cody, seemed a bit swallowed-up at first by the ensemble, but came into her own as the first act progressed. However, David Garrick was not altogether correct in his famed deathbed pronouncement that "dying is easy, it's comedy that's hard," and Fantine's death, though reasonably well-handled, could perhaps have been a touch more dramatic without risking being over the top. Eponine, Paige Smith, had no such issue, moving from a lovely "On My Own" into Eponine's death in "A Little Fall of Rain" with, if such a thing is possible in that scene, aplomb. Joshua Jones as Enjolras brought the necessary revolutionary fervor to "Red and Black" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?" as well as a nice counterpoint to Marius' love-smitten drift from his political determination. Anastasia Teel as Cosette fared well in giving some life to the character, not always an easy task given the limited role that Cosette has in the show.
LES MISERABLES begs for either elaborate or relatively minimal sets; this production kept downstage set to a minimum relatively effectively, though there were on April third a few of the common opening-night moments of not-altogether-seamless scene changes. The cast, however, rolled with the punches and handled the issues with grace if not comfort. The costuming was certainly as good as this writer has seen in recent major regional productions. By and large the timing was reasonably paced, though a few moments of staging seemed slightly rushed and awkward, especially during "Who Am I?" Although by no means close to perfect (and a nearly perfect collegiate performance is far harder come by than a nearly perfect professional performance), this production had energy and enthusiasm among the cast, and a salutary casting job by the director. But the essence of theatre is communication with the audience, and that goal was, in this writer's estimation, more than respectably achieved for the bulk of the show.
The WCU School of Stage and Screen presents four major student productions each year, LES MIS being the last of this academic year's productions. Next year's schedule begins in October, with the main musical production planned for November. At this time, the schedule has not been set, but information, when set, can be found at www.wcu.edu.
Photo Credit: Ceillie Simkiss, originally published in the Western Carolina Journalist.