Wright State University delivers an outstanding local collegiate premiere of Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s “Les Misérables,” the popular, unabashedly sentimental 1987 Tony Award-winning pop opera based on Victor Hugo’s legendary 1862 novel exploring the human condition through plight and promise within turbulent France.
Inspired by the harrowing June revolt of 1832 (the French Revolution concluded 33 years prior), “Les Miz” hasn’t lost one morsel of its angst-ridden, melodramatic urgency under W. Stuart McDowell’s excellently firm, fluid and inventive direction. As a throng of fascinating, emotionally-charged characters leap forth spanning nearly 20 years, McDowell ensures every individual is clearly defined and every moment counts. Incorporating unique flourishes beyond the use of a turntable, a signature component of Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s original iconic stagecraft, he allows the show to resonate anew with a skillful grasp of atmosphere and tone. In addition to sprinkling the action with red, white and blue in a patriotic nod to the French flag, the opening seconds single-handedly stimulates the ensuing drama with a fresh grip by reiterating the magnitude of the story in a historical context. McDowell’s large, passionate cast, vocally on par with WSU’s fabulous productions of “The Light in the Piazza” and “Grand Hotel,” is powerfully led by Andrew Quiett as ex-convict Jean Valjean. Quiett gave one of the finest performances of this season last fall as Jud Fry in “Oklahoma!,” and his return is equally praiseworthy as he fills Valjean’s redemptive journey with engrossing humility and searing potency, especially in his gorgeously heartfelt “Bring Him Home.” At the same rate, Law Dunford, in a breakthrough performance benefitted by non-traditional casting, truly captivates as Inspector Javert, a devout Christian whose unforgiving heart and obsessive drive clouds his judgment as he relentlessly pursues Valjean. Instilling fear with a marvelously formidable demeanor and razor sharp intensity, Dunford avoids morphing into a one-dimensional antagonist by astutely interpreting Javert’s harsh convictions from the perspective of duty and principle instead of blatant vengeance.
Quiett and Dunford are explosive adversaries (“Confrontation” is a knockout), but the featured players are very strong as well. The lovely, disenchanted Amy Wheeler is heartbreaking as the doomed Fantine, treating “I Dreamed a Dream” with sorrowful, lyric-driven, speak-sung eloquence. Ian Benjamin and Cassie Mikat playfully coalesce as the treacherous Thenardiers seeking to thwart Valjean. As lovebirds Marius and Cosette, an appealingly resolute Zack Steele and sweetly genteel Kaitlyn Sage beautifully intertwine although Steele (filling “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” with poignant solemnity) finds more depth in his portrayal than Sage who is saddled with thinner material. As the street-tough Eponine, hopelessly in love with Marius, the luminous Liz Romey blossoms into a superb storyteller in her fantastic “On My Own” radiating with anger, yearning and an eerily extended silence illustrating Eponine’s loneliness on the streets of Paris. Terrific tenor Mark Beyer brings fiery zeal to his striking, comforting portrayal of student rebel leader Enjolras.
Additionally, as Young Cosette, Emma Fry refreshingly embraces “Castle on a Cloud” as the haunting lullaby it was written to be by adding a few chilling inflections. Connor Iverson is a scrappy, spunky Gavroche. Abbey Fry is a delightful Young Eponine, particularly aiding in the frenzied swindling throughout “Master of the House” expertly choreographed by Dionysia Williams. Drew Bowen is delectably creepy opposite Wheeler as the cruel Factory Foreman and snobbish Bamatabois. Bowen also shines as Jean Prouvaire alongside Connor Lysholm (Combeferre), Brandon Kinley (Feuilly), Jordan Adams (Courfeyrac), Bailey Olean (Joly), Keaton Eckoff (Grantaire), and Jim Miller (Lesgles) as the defiant rebels of the ABC Café stirring the souls of their countrymen upon the death of General Lamarque (an advocate of the poor) in the rousing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Bradley Farmer and Paige Dobkins are among the standouts of the female ensemble fiercely attacking “Lovely Ladies.” The cast also includes Bailey Edmonds, Peter Cutler, Caitlyn Geisser, Emsie Hapner, Haley Iverson, King Jones, Owen Kresse, Kody Mullins, Kate Mueller, Kelsey Pohl, Brandon Ramos, Tyrell Reggins, Alyson Snyder, MacKenzie Stephens, Ben Tracy, Abby Murray Vachon, Jake West, Sabria Wynn, and Meredith Zahn.
The marvelous tech artists accenting this experience with color, dimension, nuance, realism and vigor include scenic designer Pam Knauert Lavarnway, lighting designers Matthew P. Benjamin and Erin Jones, costumer D. Bartlett Blair, sound designer James Dunlap, musical director Scot Woolley, fight choreographer Bruce Cromer, and dialect coach Deborah Thomas.
“Les Miz” dynamically champions freedom and faith, but it also serves as an impressive landmark in the history of WSU’s musical theater department and one of the best productions the Miami Valley will witness in 2014.
“Les Misérables” continues through April 6 in the Festival Playhouse of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are March 27, April 2 and 3 at 7 p.m., March 28, 29, April 4 and 5 at 8 p.m., and March 29, 30, April 5 and 6 at 2 p.m. The production, running slightly over three hours including one 20-minute intermission, is sold-out. For more information or to inquire about ticket availability, contact the WSU box office at (937) 775-2500.