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BWW REVIEWS: Weathervane's Take on LES MISERABLES Delightfully Different

One of the great things about the theater is that art is constantly changing, constantly evolving. If it isn't, even the best of shows become stale, bland and, God forbid, boring.

Fortunately, the Weathervane Playhouse production of LES MISERABLES avoided becoming a cookie-cutter production of the Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg musical. There's no boathouse prison scene nor a death-bed performance from Fantine. Through its creative use of stage space and some spot on performances, the Newark-based theater put their own stamp on the much produced show.

The 32-person cast completed its eight-show run at the Weathervane Playhouse on Dec. 29.

At first glance, the two-tier stage looked like something from the set of SANFORD AND SON with a collection of broken chairs, empty wooden boxes, and various other pieces of debris cluttering the stage. But that direction gave the production a grittier, grimier feel that suited the backstreets of 19th century France.

Throughout the performance, members of the ensemble appeared behind the boxes, barrels and turned over tables like scavengers desperate to survive. One got a sense of why Jean Valjean (portrayed by Herb Porter) had to steal bread to survive and the struggle he faced once he was released from prison.

Porter's Valjean underwent a solid transformation from a brawler who fought with his employer after he released him after learning of his criminal past to a repented sinner after a chance encounter with the Bishop of Digne (Todd Lemmon).

His pursuer Javert (Craig Juricka) used the stage to his advantage. As the inspector and the keeper of the law, Juricka often stood on the upper echelons of the stage to tower over the throngs of people as if to say no one is above the law.

While the tension between the Javert and Valjean is the centerpiece of the two act show, its many other characters drive the show. In the Weathervane production, the love triangle among Cosette (Katherine Riddle), Marius (Jon Hacker) and Eponine (Eli Brickey) is heart-achingly touching especially in the ballad "In My Life." When she sings "Every word that he says is a dagger in me," Brickey nailed the moment of a person realizing what they want can never be.

Also ranking high on the heartbreaking scale were performances by Laura Wilson (Fantine) and Olivia Weiss (Young Cosette). In the other versions I saw this year, Fantine was bedridden when she delivered her swan song "Come to Me" and it gave the illusion she was deliriously happy to be dying. In the Weathervane version, Wilson was on the floor and wracked with pain before dying in Valjean's arms. Weiss was also strong as a wild-eyed child caught up in the abusive, cold world of Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier.

The Weathervane production took things in a different direction with the casting of Thenardier (Josh Meredith) and his wife (Kayley Hinen). Many productions used the innkeepers as comic relief. Meredith and Hinen were refreshingly more sinister and dark than Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter in the movie version.

Equally solid was the chemistry among the doomed student revolutionaries. Enjolras (Zachary Pytel), the group's leader, is a powerhouse singer. When his vocals mixed in with those of Hacker, Babet (Charles Austin Piper), Feuilly (Anthony Murphy), Courefeyrac (Layne Roate), and Bamatabois (Wood Van Meter), it created a combustible force in "Red and Black" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?" in the first act. They also provided one of the acting highlights in the second act when the band of students realized no help was coming and they were doomed.

In all, the Weathervane production was a great Christmas present to area theater fans. One now has to wait until May to see what other innovations The Playhouse has in store.

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From This Author - Paul Batterson