BWW Reviews: LES MISERABLES at Maine State Music Theatre is Anything BUT Miserable

BWW Reviews: LES MISERABLES at Maine State Music Theatre is Anything BUT Miserable

Les Mis. A French title, and a show so popular it has its own nickname. When the show premiered in London in 1985, some people wondered how on earth Victor Hugo's masterpiece of a novel could be turned into a musical. Those people have long since been silenced. Les Miserables has become one of the world's most beloved musicals, and Maine State Music Theatre's current production proves exactly why.

Les Miserables has effectively taken over the world. You think I'm joking, but consider some of these numbers: The original London production opened in 1985, and is still currently running with no end in sight; that's more than 12,000 performances. The original Broadway production ran from 1987- 2003, and was revived in 2006 for 2 years; 7,176 performances between the two. It has had 3 major national tours and now the current 25th Anniversary tour, playing in multiple countries and nearly every major American and Canadian city to hundreds of thousands of people. It has been performed in more than 20 countries in almost as many languages. The story has been the source of a dozen major motion pictures, including the recent film adaptation of the musical in 2012 that grossed $150,000,000. 3 Oscars. 9 Tonys. Countless other awards. Now, the show is taking over regional theatres coast to coast, and is even heading back to Broadway in March of 2014 for a 2nd revival, based on the 25th Anniversary tour production.

If you can't tell....I'm a big fan. On a once in a lifetime trip to London in 1994, my family saw the show for the first time. And my life has never been the same since. I can honestly say that seeing that show was the reason I decided to make musical theatre my career. Nearly 20 years later, and I've been performing professionally for 13 years. That's a pretty big impact for one show to have. And trust me, as a "super fan", I COULD have a lot to be critical about.

It's at this point that I would generally lay out a moderately long synopsis of the piece. However, Considering the fact that more than 100 million people in this world have seen the show, and nearly that many have seen the movie....and then you take into account the people who have read the novel.....I'm thinking most people know the story. I will, however, give a brief one.

The story takes place in the early part of the 19th Century in France. It centers on Prisoner #24601, Jean Valjean (Gregg Goodbrod), who has spent 19 years in a prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Javert (Curt Dale Clark) is the guard, and later inspector, who oversees Valjean in prison. Valjean earns his parole but soon finds in his travels that it is not easy to find work as an ex-con. With no place to turn, he is taken in by the Bishop of Digne (David Girolmo) who gives him food and shelter. Valjean sees an opportunity to sneak away with a bag full of silver in the night and when apprehended, is astonished that the Bishop, rather than turn him in, makes a gift of the silver in order that Valjean live an honest life. Taking this to heart, Valjean tears his parole papers to shreds, and heads out in search of a new life.

Fantine (Heidi Kettenring) is working in a factory owned by the town's mayor (who looks mysteriously like Jean Valjean....WAIT!! It IS!) to support her daughter Cosette (Sophie Calderwood) who she has sent to live with an inn keeper and his wife. After an argument with coworkers, Fantine is thrown out on the street to fend for herself. She is forced to sell her jewelry, clothes, hair, and eventually her body. Following a scuffle with a wealthy John, Fantine is arrested by Inspector Javert; but the disguised Valjean vouches for her. Learning she has a child, he vows to get her well and to adopt the child for his own. Valjean learns that Javert has captured a man believed to be an escaped convict whom Javert has been searching nearly 20 years for; Jean Valjean. His conscience of pure gold, Valjean confronts Javert and reveals that he himself is in fact, Prisoner #24601. On Fantine's deathbed, Valjean is entrusted with the life of her daughter Cosette, and narrowly escapes Javert's clutches to go in search of the little girl.

He finds her wandering in the woods near the home of her caretakers Thenardier (Gary Troy), Madame Thenardier (Abby Smith) and their daughter Eponine (Emma Rankins). He offers to pay them to take Cosette away, and ever the deplorable pair, after demanding more and more money they finally relent. Cosette leaves with Valjean to start a new life together, but in hiding from his nemesis, Javert.

Ten years later, Paris is in upheaval. The young street urchin Gavroche (Alec Shiman) mingles with the prostitutes and beggars on the street, while students Marius (Max Quinlan) and Enjolras (Tyler Hanes) discuss General Lamarque's (proponent of the people) imminent death. The Thénardiers have relocated to Paris, and run a street gang. They plan to con a wealthy man and his daughter out of money; the pair is none other than Valjean and Cosette (Siri Howard). Éponine (Manna Nichols) sees Marius, who she loves in secrecy, and warns him to leave for fear that he will become involved in the fracas. During the chaos, Marius runs into Cosette and the two immediately fall in love. Thénardier recognizes Valjean, and is ambushed by him and his gang. Marius protects Cosette from the ambush, Thénardier discovers the brand on Valjean's chest, and Éponine warns that Javert is coming. Javert thwarts the Thénardiers' attempt to rob Valjean and Cosette, not recognizing Valjean until after he takes Cosette and escapes. Thénardier informs Javert of the brand he saw on Valjean, and Javert vows to recapture him. Later, Marius convinces Éponine to help him find Cosette. Though she wants him for herself, she agrees to help.

At the ABC Café, Enjolras prepares a group of idealistic students for a revolution. Gavroche brings the news of General Lamarque's death, and the students realize it is their time to act. Éponine leads Marius to Cosette, and the two confess their love for one another. Eponine spies her father and his gang outside Valjean's, attempting to break in, and stops them by letting out an ear-piercing scream. Hearing the scream, Valjean suspects Javert has discovered their new hideout and vows to move the pair to greener, Javert-less pastures. As the 1832 Paris uprising looms, Valjean and Cosette prepare to leave, Marius laments the loss of his love and Eponine pines for Marius. Enjolras rallies the students, and finally convinces Marius to join them, with Eponine disguised, in toe. Javert decides to infiltrate the students' ranks by becoming one of them, and there you have Act 1. Revolutions are never short on drama.

Under Enjolras' guidance, the students, Marius, Javert, Grantaire (Will Ray) and the disguised Eponine build a barricade. Marius asks Eponine to deliver a letter to Cosette for him, and to escape the impending battle. Valjean greets Eponine and reads the letter. Learning of his daughter's new found love, he heads to the barricade to protect Marius. Eponine follows suit, but as she rejoins the students, is mortally wounded and shortly after, dies. Gavroche exposes Javert as an enemy and as the students fight, Valjean having just joined their ranks, asks to be in charge of the traitorous inspector. Though Javert assumes his number is up, Valjean releases him. Javert warns that he will never stop until Valjean is behind bars. Valjean vows to surrender to him should he live through the night. The battle continues, and all but Marius and Valjean are slain. Valjean escapes to the sewers, carrying the wounded Marius. There, Thenardier picks among the dead for their valuables, stealing Marius' ring and spotting Valjean. Thinking they are free, Valjean once again encounters Javert. He pleads with the inspector to let him take the ailing Marius to a doctor, and then he will surrender. Javert, confused by Valjean's behavior, wrestles with his life's quest to capture who he has perceived as a filthy criminal. Unable to deal with his realization of Valjean's true character, Javert plunges himself into the river Seine.

Some time later, Valjean concedes Cosette's hand in marriage to Marius, and confesses to Marius his true identity. He tells Marius that he must flee yet again, so that the two may be married and live without worry. Marius and Cosette wed, and it is at their wedding that Thenardier, trying to convince Marius that Valjean is a murderer, reveals instead that Valjean is in fact the man who carried his battered body from the barricade. Marius expels the Thenardiers from the proceedings, and he and Cosette go in search of her father. They find him on his death bed in a convent, where he gives Cosette a letter containing his life's story. The spirit of Fantine comes to Valjean, and he makes his peace, shortly before passing away.

The story, in its essence is about Jean Valjean's path to redemption. And because he is the crux of the story, the role requires an actor of substance; honest, giving and fearless. And they have just that in Gregg Goodbrod. From the instant you realize the grizzled inmate breaking rocks is him, you are immediately on his side. And he proves time and time again why his bright, brilliant tenor voice is more than capable of singing the EXTREMELY demanding role. Curt Dale Clark as Javert adds the right amount of darkness to the "villain", but demonstrates something I feel is one of the most important themes in the show; there is very little that separate these men, whether they ever realize it or not. Javert only seems to be a villain because we are on Valjean's side. And that is one of the things Mr. Clark highlights: the underlying decency within Javert.

Not a stranger to MSMT (Oliver Warbucks in Annie and Max in Sunset Boulevard), David Girolmo is perfectly cast as the Bishop of Digne. His rich baritone and calming warmth of character are a much needEd Ray of light in the otherwise bleak surroundings when he appears on stage. His understanding and guidance propel Valjean through the entire remainder of the show; he leaves as much of an indelible mark on the audience as he does on Valjean. Heidi Kettenring has but a brief stint on stage to make another indelible mark on the audience as Fantine. As we watch her sink further in despair, and sing a soul-stirring rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream", it was very hard to hold back the tears. Her moving portrayal of a woman who has lost everything, is not one to be missed.

Just when you are in need of a smile, the affable Thenardiers appear. Abbey Smith as Madame has a boisterous, booming alto voice and comedic timing to match. I think I literally said "YES!!" under my breath as she made her entrance. Her partner in crime, Gary Troy is downright despicable, hilarious and dubious. The two steal every scene they are in with comedic dictatorship, and leave the audience rolling...wanting more. Particularly in "Master Of The House" and "Beggars At The Feast".

Ms. Sophie Calderwood as Young Cosette is an adorable delight. Her sweet and touching vocals on "Castle On A Cloud" will melt your heart, as will her helpless, Cinderella-esque portrayal of a girl in need of a savior. Similarly, Alec Shiman is charming as the ragamuffin Gavroche. Operating almost as a narrator at the top of the 2nd act, he draws us in with his street-smart talk, and his energy. (I left out an important plot point involving this young man...that is different from most productions...fair warning....). I also want to acknowledge the other young members of the company, Emma Rankins as Young Eponine as well as Alexa Reddy and Bobby Calzaretta for their strong ensemble work.

Tyler Hanes as the fiery student Enjolras has a tenor voice to be reckoned with, and a compelling character to boot. Max Quinlan's Marius is the quintessence of a young man torn between following his heart and fighting for what he feels is right. His emotional "Empty Chairs At Empty" tables (along with Marc Robin's brilliant and haunting staging) left nary a dry eye in the house. His love, Cosette (Siri Howard) is lovely as the shy and sheltered girl who struggles with being so isolated. Her voice is so pure and amazing that each time she reached the end of "A Heart Full Of Love" tears came to my eyes. Her female counterpart, Manna Nichols as the oft overlooked Eponine was so charming and loveable, that you can't help but feel her pain each time Marius looks past her. Their moment together in "A Little Fall Of Rain" is another powerful, emotional moment for the two (this may be a good indication that you need to provide your own tissues). It's quite a powerful moment as he holds her almost life-less body, the other students looking on silent and motionless. It sent shivers down my spine.

Not to be overlooked are the remainder of the strong ensemble: Joe Becherer, Melissa Bills, Brian Bohr, Michaela K. Boissonneault, Steve Calzaretta, Mary Beth Donahoe, Christopher Ellis, Laurel Haitoff, Karissa Harris, Danielle Lane, Michael Notardonato, Jericah Jo Potvin, Chuck Ragsdale, Will Ray, Terance Reddick, Blake Stadnik, Maya Tepler and Matthew West.

Marc Robin has done some fantastic work regionally (quite a bit of which I am proud to say I've seen), and I have to say this version of Les Miserables is certainly one of his finest. There are certain stylistic choices that he utilizes in the show that are so moving, I'm not sure I can even put them into words. Nor do I want to spoil you, the reader's, enjoyment of the show. Mr. Robin clearly understands the inner struggle of Jean Valjean, and does a wonderful job of illustrating some of the more "inner monologue" moments of nearly every character through stoppage of movement of all but the speaking/singing character, and isolated light. On that note, the lighting design by Jeffrey S. Koger is stunningly gorgeous, and though some of his choices seem so simple because they are brilliant, they are quite complicated and just happen to be brilliantly executed. Particularly his use of light on the back of the set, which was dreamed up by Robert Klingelhoefer. Unlike probably any set for Les Mis, it is also one of the best imagined and most functional unit sets I have ever seen. Multi functional (you'll just have to see it to understand) and awe inspiring. Not to be left out are the amazing costumes, designed by Kurt Alger. He certainly pays tribute to famous productions of the piece and some iconic looks, but the times he goes his own way are quite stunning.

I will say, I do have one criticism. And, I will say that it has nothing to do with the brilliant music direction of Mr. Edward Reichert; there seemed to be a good amount of intonation problems, particular with some of the woodwind instruments. It was apparent as soon as the show started, and I have to say, it took me out of the moment a bit. The score is as unforgettable as anything else in the show, and for those of us who are big fans, we want that to be as flawless as the rest.

That said, if you have seen Les Miserables anywhere before you will love this production. If you've never seen it, it will make you a fan. And that's coming from a HUGE fan. Tickets are going quickly, so do not miss your chance to see this show. Afterall, it may be your last chance for a while. Please visit www.msmt.org for tickets and for more information.

Photo credit: Audra Hatch


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