BWW Reviews: DeSoto Family Theatre Storms the Barricades With LES MIS

There were several reasons that I almost denied myself the pleasure of attending DeSoto Family Theatre's new production of Boublil and Schonberg's LES MISERABLES, the epic (and enduring) musical version of Victor Hugo's massive nineteenth century novel. I hereby state my preconceived notions - and hope to explain why I was so ill-opined.

Misconception #1: There is a point in one's theatre-going experience that even the best of musicals can become tiresome.

I have perhaps been to the barricades one time too many. I first became enthralled with the musical with the legendary cast recording featuring Colm Wilkinson. Memorizing the lyrics one summer, I could hardly wait until the Orpheum Theatre staged it a number of years (er, decades) ago. The evening of the performance, a lady seated next to me whispered to her companion, "The man next to me is crying." Little did she know that I had, earlier in the day, somehow made contact with poison ivy - and that the tears that flowed had absolutely nothing to do with the power of the performance. (Frankly, I was too miserable with my itching eyes and free-flowing tears to enjoy the production.) Since then, I have enjoyed the concert staging of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the show - and, in the last year or so, an outstanding production at Memphis' Playhouse on the Square. I thus thought - why endure those heavy songs and lyrics yet again?

Correction #1: Never think you've seen it before.

Director Mat Lipscomb has pulled off some rather inspired bits that threw me - enjoyably - off guard. Here is a case in point: The suicide of "Javert." With some brilliant lighting effects by Benjamin Fichthorn, Javert's exit is one of the strongest visual moments I have seen in any production of this musical. Even "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," with the effective use of candles, has a power that I have not seen in other productions.

Misconception #2: The Playhouse on the Square production set a standard that could hardly hope to be matched by a community theatre.

Correction #2: Wrong.

You've heard the old expression, "It's just a matter of apples and oranges." I would love to have anyone involved with the production at Playhouse journey south and enjoy - in a different way, to be sure - this production. As a former instructor of English at Christian Brothers High School, I had the experience and pleasure of teaching many versions of HAMLET - from Kenneth Branagh to Derek Jacobi to Richard Chamberlain to Mel Gibson to Sir Laurence Olivier to Ethan Hawke to Nicol Williamson: I've seen them all, and enjoyed some particular element of one performance over another. If the Playhouse production was "apples," this one is clearly "oranges" - and fresh ones at that.

Misconception #3: Having already performed the role of "Jean Valjean" in the Playhouse production, the vocally gifted Philip Himebook will bring the same talent to the DeSoto Family Theatre.

Correction #3: Mr. Himebook has the same magnificent voice (it literally soars beyond the barricades), but his acting interpretation has somehow deepened and improved (and it wasn't that shabby in the earlier show).

I found that, even without those powerhouse songs, the actor himself could have delivered an eloquent, masterful performance.

Misconception #4: A community theatre will ultimately have its amateur performers in the cast.

Correction #4: Where did these voices originate?

There truly isn't a weak performer in the cast. For example, Joshua Quinn, who dons different roles but still has that capacity to astonish, could have assayed almost any of the major roles here - and he is not even the star. The youngsters who play the child "Cosette" (Ella Koski) and "Gavroche (Ty Kirk) are respectively waif-like and boldly pugnacious. (Has anyone ever considered how "Gavfroche" is descended from "the Artful Dodger" in OLIVER and is a kind of first cousin to "Toby" in SWEENEY TODD?) They are not merely there to make Grandma proud, but are true to character and vocally sure. The young women of the cast - Amanda Boyd's wounded "Fantine," Julie Hight's lovely "Cosette," and Ashley Wieronski's streetwise "Eponine" - are all perfectly cast; and each shines in her solo moments.

As antidotes to all the woe and misery, Jamison White and Kelly Stevenson as the "Thenardiers" are the rats who survive any revolution (they should open an inn with "Sweeney Todd" and "Mrs. L"); and their energetic singing and dancing come as a welcome relief to those theatregoers who are inclined to tap their feet rather than weep and be inspired. Again, I thought that Ken Zimmerman and Courtney Oliver were absolute scene stealers in the Playhouse production; but, hey, . . . it's the "apples and oranges" situation again.

As the dogged "Inspector Javert," Kent Fleshman stands toe to toe (or should I say, "vocal cord" to "vocal cord"?) with Mr. Himebook. He has the stature and physicality to make Javert a real threat, and his presence is abetted by that amazing instrument of a voice - he would, in fact, have also been a first-rate Jean Valjean

The other men in the cast - Will Brown's earnest "Marius," Josh Reeves' "Enjolras," and, early on, Russell Gammon's "Bishop of Digne" - are remarkably gifted as well.

Music Director and Orchestra Director John Hodges, abetted by Chorus Master Sean Pollack, has rendered the music (and vocals) so well that the play spoke (or sang) to me in a fresh way; and those sets by Daniel Mueller are artful and atmospheric in the best sense. Through July 20.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)

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