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BWW Reviews: OSTC Begins First Full Season on High Note with Excellent LES MISERABLES

Warwick's Ocean State Theatre Company made an ambitious choice in selecting LES MISERABLES as the opening production for the 2013-14 season. Staging "the world's most popular musical" carries a fair amount of high expectations, and in addition, OSTC needed to set the bar high as the first regional theater in Rhode Island to gain the performance rights to LES MIS.

Happily, OSTC more than meets these goals and - with only minor hiccups - the theater presents a first-rate LES MISERABLES. OSTC's Acting Company is the strength of this production, boasting top-notch performers and an exceptional ensemble cast.

LES MISERABLES centers on Jean Valjean (played by Fredric S. Scheff), a man unjustly imprisoned for nearly two decades. As he attempts to begin his life anew, Valjean's journey and his many unexpected, always-confrontational encounters with the indefatigable Inspector Javert (Kevin B. McGlynn) sit at the heart of the narrative. Each fraught meeting between the men - over the course of a further 17 years - provides an introduction for some of the show's most memorable characters and compelling storylines.

From his very first scenes, McGlynn inhabits Javert's identity as The Law. McGlynn has fantastic stage presence; his character's rigid black-and-white, good-and-evil worldview even manifests in his stance, and his precise movements transform Javert into a truly formidable personage. This intensity also comes through in Javert's major musical numbers, "Stars" and "Soliloquy," both of which McGlynn delivers flawlessly.

Scheff has a powerful, operatic voice and his talent is well suited to Valjean's musical numbers, but he struggles somewhat with his movement on stage, particularly in act one. Scheff's motion feels stiff and he lacks energy and vigor when portraying Valjean as a younger man, casting doubt on his character's claims to superior strength. This is especially problematic in the hospital "Confrontation" between Valjean and Javert. Though vocally strong, the lack of physicality dampens the scene's potential danger and potency. Scheff's second-act match-ups with McGlynn flow much more easily, and he has some great one-on-one interactions with the adorable Laurel McMahon (as young Cosette) and Tommy Labanaris (Marius).

Lindsie VanWinkle gives an impressive performance as the ill-fated Fantine. Her earnest, layered delivery of the signature song "I Dreamed a Dream" serves both as an internal reflection for her character and as a key point of exposition for the storyline. VanWinkle laces her portrayal of Fantine's increasingly-agonizing circumstances with all of the heartbreak and desperation they warrant, and her tormented, restless energy gives the character's final scene with Valjean a truly poignant edge.

Alyssa Gorgone is making a name for herself at OSTC, and her turn as Eponine features her finest achievement to date. Gorgone gives outstanding vocal performances in all of her musical numbers and she brings Eponine radiantly to life with a lighthearted youthfulness that feels fresh and honest at all times. "On My Own" is especially well done and richly nuanced as Gorgone transitions Eponine's expression from wistfulness to sorrow, from fanciful heights to stark realities. She has an endearing, teasing rapport with Labanaris' cheerful Marius, and their heart-wrenching interpretation of "A Little Fall of Rain" is the showstopper of the second act.

Other company standouts include Scott Guthrie as Enjolras, the idealistic, fiery leader of the student revolution; rising star Iain Yarbrough as the plucky street urchin, Gavroche; and Matthew Eamon Ryan as the Bishop of Digne. Husband-and-wife team Nicole Paloma Sarro and JP Sarro turn in fine comic presentations as the scheming, manipulative Thénardiers. Paloma Sarro is deliciously abrasive as Madame T, while Sarro brings a jolly insincerity to the shifty landlord.

Though its London and Broadway productions boast big-budget spectacle, LES MISERABLES is, at heart, a character-driven piece. OSTC takes full advantage of that, and set designer Clifton Chadick pares down the staging to a minimum, often black-box effect. Though visuals in some scenes do feel too sparse, for the most part, this approach works very well and focuses attention on the actors without cluttering up valuable performance space.

The main set piece is the most versatile and the most successful. The prison's rock quarry transforms into building walls, city streets, and even the revolution's barricades as they appear to subtly follow Valjean through the years, encroaching on the periphery even as he attempts to escape from their long shadow. The staging of Javert's "Soliloquy," however, is awkward, and even a solid effort by McGlynn does not mask a clunky finale to that pivotal scene.

LES MISERABLES runs through October 27, 2013 at the Ocean State Theatre Company. Tickets range from $39-54 and can be purchased online at www.OceanStateTheatre.org, by phone (401) 921-6800, or at the OSTC box office, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, RI. Rush tickets are available. Call (401) 921-1777 x112 for information on group discounts.

Photo by Mark Turek.

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