Little People Reign in NSMT 'Les Mis'

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Written by Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schönberg; based on a novel by Victor Hugo; music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer; adapted and originally directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird; orchestrations by John Cameron; scenic design by Michael Anania; original costumes designed by Robert Fletcher; lighting design by David Neville; sound design by John A. Stone; costume coordination and additional costume design by Susan E. Picinich; wig and hair design by Gerard Kelly; musical director, Anne Shuttlesworth; directed and choreographed by Barry Ivan

Principal cast in order of appearance:

Jean Valjean, Fred Inkley; Javert, Devin Richards; Fantine, Jacquelyn Piro Donovan; Young Cosette, Joanna Rosen; Madame Thénardier, Inga Ballard; Thénardier, Ron Wisniski; Young Eponine, Isabelle Miller; Gavroche, Sebastian Hoffman; Eponine, Joanne Javien; Enjolras, Charlie Brady; Marius, Charles Hagerty; Cosette, Renée Brna

Performances: Now through November 18 at North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Rd., Beverly, Massachusetts
Box Office:, 978-232-7200, or in person at the theater

There are moments of grandeur in the North Shore Music Theatre's production of Boublil and Shönberg's landmark musical Les Misérables. A fiercely committed Charlie Brady as Enjolras rallies his fellow students on the eve of revolution with an impassioned "Red and Black." The exquisite Joanne Javien as Eponine sings a heartbreaking "On My Own" as she selflessly leads her love Marius into the arms of her rival Cosette. A weary but quietly heroic Fred Inkley as Jean Valjean delivers the spine-tingling and tear-inducing "Bring Him Home" as if he were singing of young warriors of today doing battle in Iraq. And the marvelous pre-teen Sebastian Hoffman as the street urchin Gavroche finds every ounce of sarcasm, bravery, and double meaning in his character as he sings of the power of "little people" while unmasking the deceitful police inspector Javert at the barricade.

Unfortunately, moments aren't enough to sustain the true momentum that is needed to propel this epic pop opera and make it soar. Laden with plot-driven narrative lyrics and repetitive sung-through music, Les Misérables needs megawatt power, pace, and vocal prowess to lift and transport the audience to a place of darkness, danger, obsession, love, and, ultimately, deep humanity. Without those transcendent ingredients, this dense story of one man's redemption set against the backdrop of the French revolutionary period from 1815 through 1832 languishes as a muddled history lesson.

The story, based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, has at its center the dogged pursuit of paroled convict Jean Valjean by the self-righteous police inspector Javert. After serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's family, Valjean is freed only to be caught stealing silverware from a bishop who befriends him. When the bishop lies for him to the police and gives him candlesticks, as well, Valjean vows to become a better man. He does so by breaking parole, fleeing Javert's jurisdiction, and assuming a new identity. Javert's insistence on recapturing the prisoner known as 24601, however, sets up a series of encounters and escapes that complicate Valjean's attempts to protect the girl Cosette he adopted when her mother, Fantine, a factory worker he inadvertently forced into prostitution by allowing her to be fired, dies.

Sub-plots involve privileged students seeking justice and social reform through revolution against tyranny; the desperation of Paris' poor to survive by whatever means they can; the innocent love shared by the student Marius and the lovely Cosette; and the emergence of heroism in the beggar boy Gavroche and the young Eponine despite her rough upbringing at the hands of her scheming parents, the innkeepers Thénardiers. All of these storylines intersect and swirl densely across time and space. Director Barry Ivan and his nimble cast and crew do an admirable job of moving scenes fluidly and making transitions smooth by taking full advantage of the in-the-round theater's many aisles and built-in revolve. They also commendably avoid the clichéd, iconic staging and choreography that have come to be associated with "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and "One Day More." What they have somehow lost in translation, though, are the big, bold, sweeping, operatic tones that send chills up and down the spine.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the scenes between Javert and Valjean. They quite simply fall flat from lack of intensity. Devin Richards as Javert has a singing voice that is too light for the role, and he lacks the necessary menace or authority to make his relentless pursuit of Valjean either obsessive or dangerous. His climactic breakdown in failing to accomplish his goal after 17 years of single minded stalking is perfunctory at best. Inkley as Valjean does what he can to spark some tension between the two men, but Richards doesn't connect, removing any sense of threat from his performance.

As Fantine, Les Mis veteran Jacquelyn Piro Donovan is more lovely, pained victim than battered but determined survivor. Her "I Dreamed a Dream" is likewise more gentle introspection than fiery passion. Her rendition draws the audience in to empathize, but the number loses its show-stopping impact as a result. Ron Wisniski and Inga Ballard as Mr. and Mme. Thénardier do stop the show with their "Master of the House," however. With a hearty dose of evil underlying their colorful performances, they bring darkness as well as wry humor to their opportunistic and street-smart connivers.

Charles Hagerty as Marius and Renée Brna as Cosette are very attractive lovers. They make their Romeo and Juliet style instant attraction believable and tender. It is Joanne Javien as the unrequited yet noble Eponine, though, who turns their sweet duet "A Heart Full of Love" into a truly heartbreaking and romantic trio. She and the young Hoffman as Gavroche are the standouts in this production.

Taking on such a legendary piece of musical theater – especially when a Broadway revival is still on the boards drawing renewed attention to its landmark status – is no small task. North Shore Music Theatre should be commended for its valiant effort. There are many grace notes in this Northeast regional premiere, chief among them the cleverness and laudable execution of Barry Ivan's staging. Would that those notes had been strung together more consistently to make this production truly memorable.

PHOTOS: Charlie Brady as Enjolras and Company; Fred Inkley as Jean Valjean and Charles Hagerty as Marius; Jacquelyn Piro Donovan as Fantine; Joanne Javien as Eponine and Charles Hagerty

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