OREM — Victor Hugo‘s episodic story of revolution, love, and redemption takes the stage once more in the Hale Center Theater’s production of Les Misérables. This well-known musical (with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boubil, Jean-Marc Natel, and Herber Kretzmer) chronicles the life of convicted criminal Jean Valjean’s life, as he journeys from the depths of his moral crucible into an upstanding life, reflecting his hard-won integrity and desire to return good unto the world. Though tenure and poor treatment in prison threatens to cripple the rest of his life, Valjean is able to overcome his humble circumstances by breaking his parole and vowing to start life anew. However, Inspector Javert, driven by duty and compelled by justice to see Valjean punished for breaking his parole, resumes a relentless pursuit of the reformed criminal.
One of director David Morgan‘s strengths in presenting this highly complex story is in delivering a clear narrative without overlooking the many facets of the story. I was never lost in the pace of the show, and was pleased that a clear arc drove plot until the final moments on stage. Character choices, arcs, and decisions were made clear in individual songs, and I appreciated seeing a deliberate thought-process from each actor. Blocking proved an asset to this show as well. It can be difficult to play to a thrust stage, but I found clear sight lines and was never left without something to watch. Transitions between scenes felt lengthy at times, but in the limited space and with large set pieces, this was easily forgiven.
The set (designed by Bobby Swenson) itself was simple, consisting of projections (designed by Howard Fullmer) onto the back wall served to show both time and location, with a majority of the stage bare. Large prop pieces called to mind a grander scene, suggestive of a world greater than the Hale’s stage could contain. Of particular note was the barricade, built into the stage’s north wall. I’ve seen the Les Amis d’ABC scenes many times before, but there was something delightfully intimate about being placed inside of the barricade with the revolutionaries.
Whereas the space was situated well for close scenes or particularly vulnerable moments, I felt the power and magnitude of many larger group numbers fell flat, if only for sparse numbers in the small space. “Prologue” and “Lovely Ladies” come foremost to mind in this respect. These are scenes that have opportunity to really resonate and set tone for the show, and I found them underwhelming. Other than that, however, the use of space transformed with ease. Lighting (by Cody Swenson) aided in the transitions between time and place and worked to beautifully enhance this production. I particularly enjoyed the atmosphere portrayed in the Thénardiers’ estate, as well as the sewer and soliloquy/Seine scene. Costumes are always a particular favorite of mine, and MaryAnn Hill‘s take on 1800’s France did not disappoint. Characters were easily distinguished, class and rank made visible with a simple glance. Details and composition of pattern and color in Madame Thénardier’s dresses were my favorite of the night, and Cosette’s wedding gown was particularly noteworthy.
One of my favorite parts of attending theater is the chance to have preconceptions changed. I’ve never been fond of Cosette (played by Natalie Nordin) and Marius (played by Jon Rose), yet I found myself pleasantly surprised at how powerful these two stood as characters. What a delight to see a genuine ingénue playing Cosette. It brought an entirely delightful charm to her role, and her love for Marius was made all the more believable because of it. Moreover, Rose’s choice to play Marius with enthusiastic innocence resulted in a very genuine performance. Marius didn’t come off as impertinent or stupid, but rather, truly believing in love. I appreciated the depth this brought to the relationship and how sincerity in affection really resounded in the otherwise politically/morally anchored story of Les Mis.
Adrien Swenson as Fantine delivered a similarly refreshing performance. Rather than the weak, whiny portrayals I’ve seen in the past, she brought a real strength and a pertinence in her suffering to the role. The end result was a delightfully compelling variation on Fantine, which broke my heart every moment she was on stage. Other favorites of the night were Ashley Gardner Carlson as Madame Thénardier, and David Matthew Smith as Enjolras. Carlson brought a vibrant energy to her role, and I was absolutely unable to look away from her when she was onstage. Her gesticulation and characterization really elevated Madame Thénardier’s presence, and I loved every second of it. Smith’s performance was among the more grounded of the night, and his resolution and stoicism played well for the character. Les Amis d’ABC exhibited a strong sense of cameraderie, and those involved in the male corps of revolutionaries stood strong for a formidable performance. Of further merit was Marissa Smith‘s Eponine, whose portrayal landed her somewhere between absolutely pitiable, and sweet. Her rendition of “A Little Fall of Rain” remains among one of the most tender I’ve seen. Blake Barlow‘s Thénardier, while comedic at times, managed to capture the absolute vile nature of his greed and corruption, serving as a potent foil to Valjean’s undeserved title of “criminal.”
I would be remiss if I did not mention R. Brodie Perry’s Jean Valjean. The part requires entire transformation of character, from thief, to upright man, to absolute hero. Not only did Perry find physical nuances to represent his character, but the emotional shifts, however subtle, were consistently powerful. He demonstrated strength at appropriate times, though still showcased a depth of vulnerability that made the character’s plight that much more compelling. “Bring Him Home” remains an emotional high-point of the evening for me. Perry’s willingness to be open was striking, and I was privileged to share in that little moment of theater. Counter to his Valjean is Ricky Parkinson‘s Inspector Javert, who didn’t necessarily resonate with me throughout the night. His presence on stage lasted while he was there, yes, but I didn’t find myself particularly compelled by Javert’s story. The gravitas and power of his uniform seemed lacking, and I wanted to see the stakes raised. That being said, Parkinson’s performance of “Soliloquy ” was perfect; I wish I could have seen that same energy, that same focus and drive and power throughout the rest of his performance. Parkinson truly delivered when it mattered.
All in all? The Orem Hale packs a powerful punch with their rendition of Les Misérables. The story manages to capture the more emotional elements while letting political undercurrent pull plot forward. I appreciate this version, particularly for the new light it brought to characters I’ve been bored by in the past. David Morgan and the cast created depth in new places, making the story refreshing and not just another rendition of an extremely popular musical. Every character’s narrative holds its own, making the devastation that much more painful and making the love and redemption that much realer. I would wholly recommend this production to anyone keen for a night of all-around good, emotionally stirring theater.