Les Misérables, music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Book by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Directed by John Saunders.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Into the whirlpool of my sin"
Jean Valjean has as much trouble forgiving himself as his constant menace, Inspector Javert has doing the same thing. They both pursue the same goal, the end for Valjean. Meanwhile students rebel, factory workers rebel, lovers and children die, other lovers wed, prostitutes ply their unsavory wares, religious folk do what they do and embarrass the ones they help, and wedded folk abuse their privileges. It’s "Les Miz" in the round at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York and it’s never really be better than it is there.
Excellent voices and attractive people invade the audience and totally fill the stage with just the right pictures of French youth in the 19th century wearing some of the most flamboyant and attractive costumes ever created by Jimm Halliday - hundreds of them. In fact, if this was just a costume parade it would probably take up an hour of show time and this show runs three hours. Of course Victor Hugo’s novel on which the musical is based is a long, long book and the weaning off the stories is a good thing. This is a through-composed show, meaning the music never stops and every word of dialogue (except for five of them) is sung.
Thankfully the usual Mac-Haydn music ensemble has been augmented with the reeds played by Daniel Philpott-Jones, the guitar by Harry Lumb and the percussion of Ken Swinkin. Under the baton of Josh D. Smith the musical sound grows grand and supportive.
There are ten principal roles in this show and they are all played by the right people with the right look and the right sound. How this could happen in summer stock I cannot say, but I can report that I was pretty much blown away by the beauty in this production. Jean Valjean is being played by James Benjamin Rogers who hails from New Zealand and is as much an opera singer as he is a musical theater actor. His rendition of "Bring Him Home" had clarity, strength, beautiful tone and perfect high notes without stretching into any falsetto. He was matched in strength and tone by James Cochran playing the ardent lover and student, Marius. His solo "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables" was a moving as his duet with Eponine, "A Little Fall of Rain."
Eponine is played by Laura Helm who adds this superb performance of "On My Own" to a growing resume of excellence. The Thenardiers, comic relief to both acts though demonic panderers and thieves, were given full-bodied lust and snarky commonplace disgust by the remarkable Monica M. Wemitt and the outrageous Mark "Monk" Schane-Lydon. These are not performances that should ever be scaled back. Marius’s tormentor-friend Enjolras is played wonderfully by Kevin Milnes and his opposite, Gavroche, is finely interpreted by David Frischkoff.
Gabe Belyeu is brilliant as the mean-spirited Javert, his second French role of the season, though this role is 180 degrees around from his "Cage au Folles" hero, Albin. He shows his truly dark side in his current role and gives a performance that makes you cringe. His final moments are brilliant and a bit heart-wrenching in the all the right ways.
The other women who lead this cast are just as good, even better at times, as the men they work with here. Sara Shepard’s Fantine is a just right choice for her. "I Dreamed a Dream" was truly a heartbreaking song in her voice. Stephanie Granade’s gorgeous lyric soprano voice brought Cosette fully alive and emotional, her high notes perfectly placed and rendered without concern for her audience audibility problems. Like her character, she plunged in and took the town of Paris by storm.
Young Cosette, played by Haley Aldrich, did a wonderful job as did the rest of the company. Really, this performance was superb and a surprise for the highest quality work I’ve seen at this theater ever.
Andrew Gmoser’s lighting was sensitive and more than merely useful as he sculpted sets and emotions with equal grace and his set work, with Kevin Gleason, was just as good. Sound Design still needs work, though. Sitting in section 2 of the theater in the round this time I had a very difficult time hearing words over music.
This is a big show getting a short review which cannot end without praise for the director, John Saunders. This was a big job and he made it look easy which is the difficulty with vomitorium theaters. Someone’s always running up or down an alleyway but for this show with the massive forces of nineteenth century Paris at his disposal, they were often posed on or around our seats, firing muskets over our heads or doing something else to make the work feel genetic and positive. Saunders, with Sara Shepard assisting and choreographing, has delivered a superb, audience-pleaser with this work and he deserves his applause.
Just at the moment the best thing to do in Columbia County is to stamp your passports and go back to France in the early 1800s. You’ll be glad you went.
James Benjamin Rogers; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
Monica M. Wemitt and Mark "Monk" Schane-Lydon; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
Laura Helm; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
Les Misérables plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 in Chatham, NY through August 4. For tickets call the box office at 518-393-9292 or go on line to www.MacHaydnTheatre.org.