By Pam Harbaugh
From the depths of despair to the heights of nobility, the epic tale of redemption resonates with power and an almost religious zeal in Riverside Theater’s magnificent production of “Les Miserables.”
With book by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boublil, English adaptation by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, this musical has enjoyed a whopping history of success.
Just in case you’ve been in cultural limbo for the past 27 1/2 years (yes, the musical debuted in Oct. 1985), here’s some “Les Miz” catch-up: The story is based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel and spans 17 years. It is set against the growing social unrest of starving masses in post-revolutionary France. In it, Jean Valjean has been imprisoned for breaking into a house to steal a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child. He breaks his parole and is hunted by down pious Inspector Javert. The years pass and Valjean has become an adopted father and respected businessman and town leader. The social unrest has escalated, prompting idealistic students to stage a violent protest.
With love, thievery, despair and piety woven in, the storyline can become complex. But here, every member of the superbly voiced cast reaches every note, nuance and meaning. Indeed, thanks to these stage professionals, you leave understanding the entire story, each character, each conflict and resolution.
You just don’t get any better than the operatic souls who give breath to Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Both David Michael Felty (Valjean) and Todd Alan Johnson (Javert) have made livings portraying these characters in national tours. (Johnson came to the King Center in 1999 as Javert.)
Intriguingly, both characters are motivated by the Godly quest of doing the right thing. Their “Confrontation,” after the prostitute Fantine dies, is rich, exciting theater. And that’s only a prelude to the theatrical thrill of Javert’s “Soliloquoy,” where he questions his own beliefs — the meat of his existence. Johnson…oh my….despite having done this part probably thousands of times by now, creates an unforgettable, theatrically rich moment.
As Valjean, Felty grabs you and doesn’t let go. He reaches lofty, heavenly heights in “Bring Him Home,” as he beseeches God to spare Marius, the young man who loves Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette. But more than that, his vocal interpretations throughout dig deep to deliver powerful emotion.
Add to that Sarah Stevens’ pristine portrayal of Cosette and her high soprano voice. She and Bruce Landry, who is Marius, deliver a romantic “A Heart Full of Love.” Becky Gulsvig strikes the poignant chord as Eponine, the street urchin who falls for Marius. Her “On My Own” is a smash.
Peter Gosik is Enjolras, the rabble rousing revolutionary who strikes up the unforgettable “Red and Black.” Especially effective is the staging in Landry’s “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” in which Marius laments his lost friends.
Kevin Thomas Collins and Alicia Irving are deliciously over the top as the questionable innkeepers, the Thenardiers, who sing “The Inkeeper’s Song” (a.k.a. “Master of the House”).
Traci Blair as Fantine (“I Dreamed a Dream”) and the entire ensemble display such big, beautiful voices, you’ll have to pinch your arm to remind yourself that you’re not sitting in a Broadway theater. (Or, simply squirm around a bit. It’s so much more comfy at Riverside than on Broadway, you know.)
Director and designer, Allen D. Cornell uses these voices to the fullest and delivers one of Riverside’s most satisfying productions to date. He also advances the story’s recurring themes of God and church in his direction and design. Indeed, he embeds suggested images of crosses in the visual designs and uses the theme clearly in the story’s retelling.
Music director and conductor Ken Clifton gets an abundance of sound, much of it very loud, out of his 10-member pit orchestra. However, the lack of actual strings results in not enough musical finesse in the more delicate numbers.
Lighting designer Rob Siler paints the stage with light and shadow, creating at times a chiarascuro effect. His use of a bright white light to suggest death and transcendence into heaven is evocative of the original Cameron Macintosh production.
Mind you, this is not the Broadway production. This is Riverside’s production. It has its unique look and design. Nevertheless, there are a couple of iconic elements that simply must be used — the waving red flag and the bridge effect when Javert jumps. It’s like lining up the Von Trapp children in a row to sing “So Long, Farewell,” it must be done a certain way. You can’t mess with that type of expectation.
Riverside Theatre’s “Les Miserables” is theater at its most satisfying. It takes a willing, weeping audience on a resonating, powerful ride. You simply must not miss this.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Les Miserables” runs through March 17 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Drive, Vero Beach. Tickets run to . Call 772-231-6990 or visit www.riversidetheatre.com .