SANDY — What is there to say about Les Misérables that has not already been said? For starters (according to the theatre company), Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy, Utah, is the only theatre in the world performing Les Mis; and it is a joy that they are.
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo and with lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel and music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Les Misérables is the hope-inspiring work that one would expect from the 1980s theatrical masterpiece. Now is the perfect time to resume the message of resilience and redemption as this nearly 200-year-old story continues to prove its relevance and inspire emotion. In the words of Hugo himself, “so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”
Both heart-rending and heartwarming, Les Misérables is a popular tale of revolution and the journey of one man, Jean Valjean. With a ship full of rowers, emerging from the theatre floor to the song “Look Down” the show was off to an exciting start. However, roughly three minutes into the opening number, the show was halted due to “unforeseen circumstances.” Fortunately, after a few minutes of confused silence, the play resumed with no further interruption. While the disruption was short-lived and well recovered, the lack of explanation made me worry about the show for about its first 30 minutes. The interruption may have also put the cast off balance. The beginning of the play felt rushed, as the actors tried to get through the exposition for the lengthy story. (For example, Fantine’s demise felt hurried.) However, after the cast regained its confidence, the show moved well with efficacious timing that allowed me to absorb the emotional and heavy scenes.
Despite the opening hiccups, this was an engaging and enjoyable production. Director Dave Tinney made some impressive choices that created a more powerful show. Recurring use of a suspended bridge showcased emotional scenes. Stripping the scene of all accessories and distractions with just the actor on the bridge led to a very personal viewing. For example, Eponine sang the very vulnerable “On My Own” on the bridge while Jean Valjean also experienced a posthumous reunion using the bridge as a gateway to heaven. Additionally, Javert’s suicide was exceptionally convincing using yet another bridge over the pit of the stage. Another powerful moment that Tinney created was “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” in which varying levels of separate platforms held the ghosts of revolutionists gone, these circling around a distraught Marius. Tinney excelled at showing the emotion of scenes through visuals, each tear-jerking number complemented with an affecting image. The light design by Jaron Hermansen also greatly contributed to this effect.
As Gavroche, Parker Burnham was superb. Each time Burnham appeared, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of his performance. He was an exceedingly convincing child revolutionary; I could feel the character believed in the cause and was ready to die for it, as he unfortunately did. Haley Wawro as Eponine was captivating as she showed her character’s unrequited love for Marius. Wawro resented beautiful vocals in “On My Own” and truly embodied her role. Daniel Hess offered an interesting Thénardier with his raspy and growling voice. His performance was fitting to the character, and his exaggerated actions were the perfect touch of comedic relief.
Towering above these performances, though was the true master of house: Kyle Olsen as Jean Valjean. I could give 24,601 reasons why his was my favorite performance, but the number one reason was his rendition of “Bring Him Home.” While this is a difficult song to sing, Olsen not only sang it well, but acted it well. I felt Valjean’s desperation, his prayer, his willingness to give his life for Marius. I get the chills just thinking about it. “Bring Him Home” is usually not my favorite song in Les Mis, but Olsen made it my favorite this night. Apart from this crowning moment, Olsen overall gave an outstanding performance. Olsen as Valjean demonstrated the meaning of kindness, the path of redemption, and the importance of love and forgiveness, truly capturing the authenticity and sincerity of the beloved character.
As a complement to Olsen, Preston Taylor was a satisfying Javert with a fantastic voice with the appropriately menacing tone. As Jean Valjean’s foil, Taylor as Javert was successfully commanding, unforgiving, and apathetic. My only criticism for acting is in Matthew Sanguine as Marius. Sanguine’s performance was adequate, and his voice was incredible. But I wanted more. Sanguine did not produce the emotional response I would expect from this character. At times, I felt Sanguine’s acting got lost in the singing and that the chemistry between him and Rachel Bigler as Cosette was unsatisfying. The love of Marius and Cosette is a central aspect of the story, and the level of emotion was lacking.
Hale’s production of Les Misérables is being sold at full capacity, I believe the night I saw the play was sold out. While at first it felt unnerving to be in a venue with so many people, I eventually felt comfortable and that proper COVID precautions were taken. While there was no social distancing in the theatre, masks were required. No concessions were offered, as masks were to be worn at all times. It is a somber idea that I would feel distressed just being around people due to the pandemic, but this play was absolutely worth it. I left the theatre feeling energized and excited. The shared emotions and humanity that one experiences from live theatre is irreplaceable. And few shows provoke such feelings as Les Mis!
Hale Center Theatre did a tremendous job reviving a classic play from the pre-COVID era. While not a flawless production (with a missed note here and an errant prop there), seeing Les Misérables was a gratifying experience in many ways. I would recommend seeing this play to anyone who misses that connection that only theatre can deliver, for those moved by poignant moments such as Olsen’s amazing “Bring Him Home,” and for those looking for a message of hope and a ray of light after a dark time. To quote the show’s finale, “even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”