BWW Reviews: Zach Theatre's LES MISERABLES Is a Sturdy Production of a Modern Classic

Musicals rarely reach the phenomenal success of Les Miserables. It's played in London's West End for 28 years and counting. The Original Broadway production ran for over 6,500 performances and played for over 16 years, and the recent film adaptation won 3 Academy Awards and earned over $440 million worldwide. Whether you're a longtime fan of the musical or a newcomer to it, Zach Theatre's current production of it certainly does it justice and shows exactly why Les Miserables is an international hit that others are measured against. This is a solid, soaring production of one of the most beloved musicals of all time.

The musical, with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer (based on the original French lyrics by Alain Boublil), brings Victor Hugo's sweeping novel to life. After spending 18 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread, Jean Valjean (Pat McRoberts) breaks his parole and is hunted for years by Inspector Javert (Nicholas Rodriguez). The direction by Matt Lenz is faithful to the staging of previous productions in certain iconic moments but original and full of details in others. His opening of the show is particularly impressive. As Lenz shows us the image of another man being chased by policeman with rifles, he immediately sets up a cruel, ruthless world.

Lenz's design team has the difficult task of creating new work while still paying homage to the iconic original designs which have been seen by millions of theatergoers around the world, and they all succeed tremendously. The costumes by Whitney Adams appropriately run the gamut from drab and shabby to tailored and luxurious, and the lighting design by Matthew Webb is rich and lush. Scenic designer Cliff Simon uses several battered, soot-covered walls, windows, and doors to create a cold, murky environment. Though Simon scraps the original production's turntable (a bold and wise choice) his enormous barricade set is still just as impressive.

The cast, particularly the ensemble and supporting players, are more than capable of the challenging and vocally demanding material. Jill Blackwood is at the top of her game as Fantine. She's immediately sympathetic and tragic, and her voice is, as always, spectacular to hear. As the show's second tragic heroine, Traci Lee gives a strong performance as Eponine, though her slightly angst-ridden rendition of "On My Own" may polarize the audience.

Andrew Cannata is fantastic as Marius. He plays up Marius's youth and innocence (the character's clumsiness with women is particularly charming), and his voice is put to good use in his stunning rendition of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." As Cosette, Jennifer Young Mahlstedt takes the quintessential sweet soprano ingénue role and smartly adds a touch of rebellious teen, and as Enjolras, Joshua Denning showcases his booming baritone voice to great effect.

In the show's sole comedic roles, Felicia Dinwiddie and Roberto Araujo shine as the Thenardiers. Dinwiddie plays Mme Thenardier as a sassy lady with limited patience, a very different and fun choice. As her counterpart, Araujo is high energy and hysterical but occasionally dangerous and sinister, two qualities that fans of the book often find lacking in the stage version's characterization of Thenardier. It's also quite refreshing to see someone in the role who can sing the role rather than a comedian who can somewhat carry a tune.

Of the leads though, one very easily outshines the other. Nicholas Rodriguez is absolutely perfect as the strong, stoic Inspector Javert. He makes the wise choice not to play the role as a villain. His Javert is a do-gooder with an unwavering moral compass. While the character is very misguided, Rodriguez makes us admire his determination, and if you fail to admire that, you'll still admire his chill-inducing voice.

While Rodriguez excels as Javert, Pat McRoberts struggles as Jean Valjean. His vocals on "Bring Him Home" are absolutely beautiful, but that's only five minutes of a three hour show. McRoberts's thin, frail voice does not fit the character. Valjean should be strong, but here he's so weak that the thought of him turning himself in to the police is far more plausible than the idea of him running from Javert for nearly twenty years. Vocally, he's consistently overpowered by the other performers around him, and his acting-punctuated with strange facial contortions and constant leaning to his right-is bizarre and awkward.

Though it's leading man holds the production back a bit, Les Miserables is still a moving, touching, and emotionally charged epic. It's visually stunning and full of wonderfully executed performances. Les Miserables fans and newcomers alike will appreciate this magnificent production. There are countless reasons to hear these people sing.

Running time: Approximately 3 hours including one 20 minute intermission.

LES MISERABLES plays the Topfer Theatre at 201 South Lamar Blvd, Austin, 78704 now thru Sunday, November 3rd. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm with occasional Saturday matinees at 2:30pm. Tickets are $25-$90. For tickets, a full performance schedule, and more information, visit www.zachtheatre.org.

Photo Credit: Kirk Tuck


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