BWW Reviews: The Turntable Returns to Orlando Shakespeare's LES MISERABLES
If you haven't heard of LES MISERABLES then you're probably living under a pop-culture rock. Since making it's English-language stage debut in 1983, this phenomenon has been thrilling audiences around the world and now in Orlando. To kick off Orlando Shakespeare's 26th Season, this mega musical packs a strong cast and an award winning score.
This production started making the news weeks ago with their flash mob at The Mall of Millenia. The video went viral and was quickly picked up across national news. If you haven't seen the flash mob you definitely should check it out to wet your appetite. If you have seen it, watch it again because it's awesome. In case you were wondering it was definitely this cast singing in the video.
Make no mistake LES MIS is a long musical (it's about two hours, fifty minutes with one intermission). It takes place after the French Revolution. In the beginning, we meet Jean Valjean, the protagonist who was imprisoned for 19 years after stealing bread. On his release day he meets his the bane of his existence, Inspector Javert.
Fast forward a few years, Jean Valjean broke parole and changed his name. He is a successful factory owner and mayor. This is also Valjean's first encounter with Fantine. Fast forward, nine years and it's 1832. The people of France are poor, sick and upset, which sets off the rest of the plot. There's a lot of anguish, death, a love triangle and some great music. The plot has something for everyone.
What I like about the cast is that there is a good mix of professionals and locals. It is incredible that this local theater company is attracting talent with the caliber of Broadway veterans like Davis Gaines (Inspector Javert) and Caitlyn Caughell (Eponine). Then there are the future stars that appear in LES MIS as actors for three child roles: the iconic sad Young Cosette who sing "Castle on a Cloud," Young Eponine, and the adorable Gavroche.
The kids casted in this production were delightful despite the gloomy setting. I sat next to a girl around 7 years old who whispered "I want to do that" to her father after watching Young Cosette played by Julia Jordan. Gavroche, at this performance played by Jackson Chase, was a spunky, confident young man. Many of these child actors have a host of theater credits to their name and we look forward to seeing them in the future.
Full Sail University student, Michael Hunsaker rocks the role of Jean Valjean. My initial impression was that he looked too young to play the aging character, but as soon as those first few notes hit my ears all those reservations were gone. Valjean is a vocally demanding and emotional role, yet it plays perfectly to Hunsaker's strength. Hunsaker's interpretation of Valjean can be described as forgiving, yet tormentented. I know I'm not the only audience member that got chills during "Valjean's Soliloquy." Hunsaker voice can be a powerhouse as heard in "Who am I?" to vulnerable as heard in "Bring Him Home." Overall this man is a star, when he steps onstage every scene is delivered pitch perfectly. Michael Hunsaker where have you been?
It goes without saying that along with this production was the highly anticipated performance of Broadway Veteran and another Orlando native Davis Gaines. I had a chance to interview Davis before seeing the show. Check it out here. As Valjean's nemesis, Gaines does well portraying the unbending will of Inspector Javert. One of my favorite numbers is the duet after "Fantine's Death" between Valjean and Javert. The combination of tenor versus baritone is remarkable to hear.
This such a fantastic cast with amazing voices. Who stood out for me was Matt McMahan as the student rabble rouser, Enjolras. Again, an amazing voice, but also passionate and believable. By the end of "The People's Song" a/k/a "Do you heard the people sing?" I thought, "Sure Enjolras, I'll go with you on a crazy mission to defend this barricade made entirely of chairs and armed with only a giant red flag. What could possibly go wrong?"
Everyone enjoys a love triangle. There was good chemistry between Cosette (Heather Botts) and Marius (Tim Quartier). Caitlyn Caughell's Eponine was genuine and tragic. It was heartbreaking to watch Eponine try and fail multiple times to tell Marius how she felt. As Marius, Tim Quartier mastered the impetuous romantic male. I love his transformation from awkward student culminating with the poignant ballad "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables."
One thing that bothered me was the overly dramatic death scenes of all the characters who died. Notably Fantine, who gasps, goes rigid and dies. No death scene was subtle. Each one was so overt to the point where it was funny (Confession: I chortled during Javert's suicide).
Last year when Orlando Shakes did THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, I noted the similarity between the OST turntable and the Original Broadway production of LES MIS. The turntable worked very well for this production. It effectively moved set pieces in a clean manner. One of the largest piece on the turntable was the act 2 barricade. What seemed like a hodgepodge of different furniture, was also a stable structure for actors to climb upon. Kudos to the stage crew who moved the heavy pieces into place without a sound.
If ever there was a reason to donate during the United Arts Annual Campaign, it's so Orlando Shakes can purchase some new wigs. There were definitely some atrocious animal-looking hair pieces sitting atop various heads. During the performance I attended there were some also some sound issues. Actors with powerful voices popped the speakers and the rustle sounds of a microphone as it rubs against a costume. I imagine if more musicals were put on at the Margeson Theater that better sound equipment would be purchased. Still, donate to support the cause.
LES MISERABLES definitely meets the lofty expectations of theater fans new and old. Directed by DJ Salisbury, tickets for this hit musical are selling out fast. LES MISERABLES runs at Orlando Shakespeare Theatre until October 12th. For tickets and more information visit www.orlandoshakes.org.
Photo credit: Tony Firriolo