July 07--The blockbuster musical "Les Miserables" has been around for decades. Still, no matter how many times you see it, the emotional power of the piece is inescapable.
And that was true Saturday for those in the nearly sold-out opening night audience at Idaho Shakespeare Festival's impressive production.
It's impressive in part due to director Victoria Bussert's streamlined staging and her approach to distilled storytelling that came together in three and a half weeks. She and her team, including choreographer Greg Daniels, did equally well with last season's "Sweeney Todd."
Jeff Hermann's towering set creates a flexible background that becomes everything from the seamy streets of Paris to the barricades of a revolution.
But it is impressive mostly for Stephen Mitchell Brown's beautiful performance as Jean Valjean -- the unlucky fellow who steals a loaf of bread and serves 19 years in prison only to be hunted by the self-righteous Javert (Brian Sutherland).
It's based on Victor Hugo's sweeping, melodramatic tale of injustice, love and the gray areas between good and evil, set to music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil (with English translation by Herbert Kretzmer).
Brown brings an intense virility to Valjean. He has the perfect vocal quality, which soared in his opening "Soliloquy." His final note sent the stunned audience cheering. But Brown's best moment came in his heartrendingly tender performance of "Bring Him Home." He possesses both the power and finesse needed for Valjean.
Broadway veteran Sutherland sacrificed power for the precision the role demands, yet he had his moments as Javert in his seeking ballad "Stars" and his "Soliloquy," in which he questions his faith in the law.
The rest of the talented supporting cast each had their moments:
Claire Howes Eisentrout, with her clear, bell-like soprano, was wonderfully sweet as Cosette. Pedar Benson Bate was a delightful mix of awkward giddiness and earnest intensity as the ultra-romantic Marius. Powerhouse Keri Rene Fuller was breathtakingly tragic as Eponine.
Tom Ford and Tracee Patterson provide the comic relief as Thenardier and Madam Thenardier -- innkeepers, thieves and really bad parents. Kyle Jean Baptiste gave a dynamic performance as Enjolras, leader of the student revolutionaries.
Jodi Dominick's Fantine, Cosette's mother who is forced into prostitution, grabs the heart with her performance but struggled vocally in her more powerful moments in "I Dreamed a Dream." She fares better in the quieter moments.
The company created a surprisingly robust sound for only 20 voices.
Bussert's at her best with these emotional stories. Her staging is particularly touching for young Gavroche's death. Shot and killed off stage, his body is lovingly carried in by the female chorus, who sob over the bodies of the dead revolutionaries. It is a simple and effective statement on the tragedy of war.
The pit orchestra led by musical director Joel Mercier hit a few missteps but in all handled this extremely challenging score well. There were a few blips on stage, and the pacing sometimes felt rushed, but those issues will resolve and for most of the audience didn't dim the experience of this musical epic.
Dana Oland: 377-6442, Twitter: @IDS_DanaOland
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