By PAM HARBAUGH
Titusville Playhouse proved itself “The Little Engine That Could” on opening night of “Les Miserables.” Despite a major technical glitch that threatened to derail the show, the triumphant essence of a story well told by spectacular talent shone from first downbeat to tear-jerking final moment.
Directed beautifully by Steven Heron, this “Les Miz,” of course, differs in blocking and spectacle from the Cameron Mackintosh production that held the West End and Broadway in its lucrative grip. But it’s still the same powerful music that lifts you into its sails, brings you soaring into a world of despair and redemption and sets you down again a person richer for the ride.
“Les Miserables” is based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel. The epic tale spans 17 years and is set against social unrest in post-revolutionary France. It begins in a prison where Jean Valjean receives a parole. His crime was stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child. His harsh treatment he receives leads him to break his parole and change his identity. He is hunted down through the years by Inspector Javert, a man from the streets whose strict adherence to piety was his own salvation. The hunt comes to a head during a violent protest staged by idealistic students intent on “occupying” Paris to help the starving masses.
In the musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Shonberg, the action begins with the attention-demanding first notes served up by one of the most important performers in the production – the orchestra. Here, that orchestra is led by talented conductor/music director Michael Coppola, who brings 20 musicians together into one of the best community theater orchestras you will ever hear.
Then there is the excellent cast.
Gregory Galbreath forges Valjean with power and love. His performance makes you wonder just what corner this baby has put himself in all these years. Yes, he was Archibald Craven in Melbourne Civic Theatre’s “Secret Garden,” but that was a long time ago. His is the type of performance that relaxes the audience, for we know that every note and nuance will be met with ease and grace…even “Bring Him Home,” which he sings to perfection.
A powerhouse performer, Patrick Ryan Sullivan digs deeply into the role of Javert and delivers all the goods. His Javert bristles with intensity, ready to explode with anger. He finds a street savvy reality to the inspector which accelerates the confrontations he has with Valjean. His resonant voice booms over the masses and attention is paid. We see his philosophical and religious struggle in the stunning “Stars” and “Soliloquy” and are moved by it, although we want to see Heron slow down Javert’s final moments so we can absorb the feast.
Alexander Browne is a marvel as Marius, the young man who falls in love with Cosette, Valjean’s ward. His splendid voice and dashing stage presence is pin-point accurate. He tugs at your heart with “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” but especially satisfying is “A Heart Full of Love” with Sara Elizabeth Camp (Cosette) and Melinda Lebo (Eponine).
Ms. Lebo is a real stand-out as Epinone, a big hearted young woman who has had the misfortune of coming from the wrong side of town. In fact, her heartfelt, beautifully sung “On My Own” is the first tear-jerking moment of the show. In it, she pines for the handsome Marius, who has fallen in love with Cosette. You might as well get prepared and bring your hankies to this show. When Ms. Lebo performs “A Little Fall of Rain,” resistance to emotion is futile.
Laura Hodos’ delicate “I Dreamed a Dream” shows the despair that has built up in Fantine, the young woman forced into prostitution in order to support her child. Instead of showing Fantine as being self-pitying, Hodos’ portrayal is of a strong woman doing what she must. However, we do need to see more downward spiral to Fantine in order to ratchet up the emotion in her death scene.
Other stand outs include Chris Rye as Enjolras, the rabble-rousing student who leads the stirring “Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” William Merklinger and Cindy Bixby are fun and appropriately over the top as Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, the sticky-fingered innkeepers who sing “Master of the House.”
More must be said about the terrific acoustic orchestra. There are keyboards, flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello, string bass, trumpet, flugel horn, French horn, /trombone, drums and timpani – all perched on a loft above the back of the stage and hidden from view by a small drop. They create such a rich backdrop to the glorious voices.
Because of the technical issues, Philip Lupo’s lighting design was not employed on opening night. The crew manged to run this performance by the seat of their pants. Clicking noises were heard when overhead spots came on, because a crew member had to stand off stage and turn on tripped circuit breakers before each lighting cue. An old lighting board had to be dusted off and brought out for the second act in order to just wash the stage with light. Follow spots were manned and lighting specials had to be re-patched on the fly into the old dimmer board.
It was theater-within-theater.
Ironically, this, coupled with the sounds of the rigging on the traveler (a curtain which is pulled back and forth to hide scenic shifts) created an unexpected Brechtian touch which reveals theater’s underpinning. Instead of being absorbed by the story, audiences in Brecht’s “Epic Theatre” acknowledge the production’s themes as the living reality of social, political and economic concerns – in other words, what we see on stage is what is all around us. That approach works with “Les Miz.”
All of this…all of this…reveals something deep about Titusville Playhouse — technology will never replace heart. It shows in this production, in TPI’s accidental but nevertheless happy opening of “Les Miserables,” and the abiding theme of nobility and to persevere despite all the odds. If that’s not “Les Miz,” then what the heck is?
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Les Miserables” runs through Sept. 29 at Titusville Playhouse, 301 Julia St., Titusville. Tickets are $20 to $22 plus service charges. Discounts for students, military and seniors. Call 321-268-1125 or visit www.titusvilleplayhouse.com.