Les Misérables without a turntable? No rumbling barricades lumbering down from the wings? Is that even possible? Yes, indeed, as is being proved at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music where a magnificent staging of the blockbuster long-running musical is being presented. Directed by Aubrey Berg, the head of CCM’s renowned musical theater program, the show (only recently made available to colleges and universities) has been dramatically re-imagined, performed on a largely bare stage backed by a wall of ladders, staircases, shelves and recessed ledges. Elements of the wall, designed by Mark Halpin, occasionally move forward to represent a different scene, and a dozen or so chairs become everything from heavy burdens carried by prisoners to the remnants of revolutionary fervor.
This simplified physical production allows a sharper focus on characters, the action and especially the music, a key element of this through-sung show. Berg has assembled a remarkable cast (approximately 40 performers, including an ensemble who individually play multiple roles) with soaring vocal talent for solo numbers and breathtaking choral power when they combine forces in iconic numbers such as “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “One Day More.”
The depth of skill at CCM is such that Berg has double-cast the leading roles: Julian R. Decker and Blaine Alden Krauss play Jean Valjean in alternating performances, and Noah J. Ricketts and Collin Kessler take turns with the role of the brutal Inspector Javert. (The cast is displayed daily in the lobby of Patricia Corbett Theater.)
Krauss and Kessler performed spectacularly on opening night. Krauss launched into the role of the alienated prisoner Valjean with scarcely controlled anger in the Prologue (“What Have I Done?”) and maintained a level of intensity across the three-hour performance as his character evolved from a destitute outcast to a successful businessman, then a loving father and dedicated patriot. He handled Valjean’s aging exceptionally well, a physically imposing man who takes on great dignity and humanity, reflected in a gorgeous tenor singing voice, especially the emotionally draining “Bring Him Home.”
As the unfeeling and tyrannical Javert, Kessler was charismatic with his powerful baritone renditions of “Stars,” his inflexible doctrine of justice, and “Soliloquy,” when he commits suicide, unable to resolve his own intransigence with Valjean’s kindness and generosity. Javert is a compelling role, and Kessler made him the most watchable character whenever he was onstage.
But the kudos don’t stop with them (or with Decker and Ricketts, who I’m sure are equally impressive). Kimber Sprawl gives a soulful, touching performance as Fantine (“I Dreamed a Dream”), the overwhelmed, impoverished woman whose child Valjean takes in when Fantine dies. Matthew Paul Hill is the corrupt, lascivious innkeeper Thénardier, and Emily Schexnadre is his grasping, crude wife; they provide considerable comic relief, especially during the raucous “Master of the House.”
Lawson Young is Éponine, the Thénardier’s waif-like daughter whose unrequited love (“On My Own”) puts her in the path of revolutionary unrest of Paris. The object of her affection, Marius Pontmercy, is winningly sung by Eric Geil, especially his sudden infatuation with the sweetly adult Cosette, played by Stephanie Jae Park. Young, Geil and Park offer a moving, three-voiced performance of “A Heart Full of Love.” Also worth noting is Jonah Sorscher as the jaunty boy revolutionary Gavroche, a role played with enthusiasm and panache (“Little People”), making his tragic death all the more painful.
Movement is a key element of this production, with dance choreography by Diane Lala and believable fights staged by k. Jenny Jones. As the student revolutionaries are shot by the army, rather than falling to the ground, they are individually isolated in heroic poses, standing frozen in pools of light until their leader Enjolras is struck down, at which point they simultaneously collapse. When they are wistfully recalled by Marius in “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” they sit silently on chairs, singularly and slowly exiting with a chair, action that is understated but devastating.
Berg uses special effects sparingly but effectively during the chaotic revolutionary battles. The student rebels turn upstage and slowly face their invisible attackers. The stage is flooded with fog; gunshots resound (some using blanks that exude a hint of gunpowder into the theater) and lighting that transitions from bright white flashes to a blood-red wash. The result is a tangible sense of tragic, futile battle.
Peeled back to its raw essence, CCM’s staging of Les Misérables is powerful and memorable, one of the best musical theater productions on a Cincinnati stage this season.
LES MISÉRABLES, presented by the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, continues through March 9.