By Lynn Geyer
Tacoma Musical Playhouse opens its 20th season with “Les Misérables.”
With book by Alain Boubill and Claude-Michel Schönberg, who also does the music, and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, this is the stirring operatic retelling of the Victor Hugo classic tale. The novel is considered to be one of the greatest of the past two centuries.
After a discouraging opening run in France, the producer Cameron Mackintosh of “Cats” fame was contacted to help save the show, which he did and it has become one of the best loved musicals of the world.
This is the story of Jean Valjean – if set in America, it would be the story of John Johnson – an everyman caught up in the inequities of 19th Century French law.
Convicted and condemned to the galleys for 16 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family, Valjean finally earns his freedom only to realize that carrying a Yellow Passport of an ex-convict makes him an untouchable. He is shunned by all and welcomed nowhere. Only a casual kindness by a local bishop restores Valjean’s faith in people and the world. He destroys the failure-fraught passport, leading him to eventually become a prosperous businessman and the mayor of his town.
In the Bishop’s manner, Valjean aids Fantine, a wrongfully expelled factory worker by committing to care for her child, Cosette, who has been living with the conniving innkeepers M. and Mme. Thenardier and their spoiled daughter Eponine. At this time, he again meets his nemesis, Javert, a policeman who has pursued Valjean for years. Escaping the law, our hero collects his ward and finds safe haven in Paris.
Years later, during the Student Uprising, Cosette meets Marius and they fall in love. Coincidently, Eponine, who has become a charming young lady, also loves Marius.
The uprising builds to a height when Gavroche, the street urchin known as Jack Frost, calls everyone to the barricades to receive orders from Enjolras, the students’ Captain; Marius gathers with the others as does Eponine. She carries a message to Cosette for Marius and becomes mortally wounded. Valjean goes to Marius’ rescue where he discovers that Javert, acting as a spy for the crown, has been captured. Valjean helps him to escape as he carries the injured Marius to his freedom through the Paris sewers.
Javert cannot console himself that he has been saved by the man he relentlessly pursued; he leaps into the Seine to his death. Cosette and Marius wed just before Valjean succumbs and joins Fantine in the better after-life.
Director/Choreographer Jon Douglas Rake has done an excellent job of mounting this heroic tale on the newly revised stage at Tacoma Musical Playhouse. With a cast of 32, this is no easy task but Rake has a knack for making things come together.
Musical Director Jeffrey Stvrtecky conducts the eight-piece orchestra from the much welcomed new orchestra pit sunken beneath the stage apron. They may be unseen, however, the effect of the pit adds to the mystic of the music and offers a cleaner stage appearance than the previously audience left “exposed” orchestra.
The impressive set is designed by Bruce Haasl, TMP’s new Technical Director. Haasl has nicely defined each of the many scenes from the galleys to factory to home to sewer with a two-story set which sports on-stage side sets; nicely done.
John Chenault’s light design is perfect for the show, especially the effects of the fighting at the barricades.
Stvrtecky’s orchestra consists of Zachary Kellogg and Don Miller on reeds with Diz Carroll as a substitute; Mick Crosby on trombone; Iris McBride on drums; Michael Leavens and Jason Garcia playing trumpet; and Mark Willis and Ashley Smith on French horn.
The 18-member Ensemble is one of the strongest amassed by Rake. They include: Carlos Barajas, Jeff Barehand, Dan Engelhard, Mathew Flores, Brynne Geiszler, Stephanie Graham, Brittany Griffins, Kathy Kluska, Allyson Jacobs-Lake, Mary Chloe Lee, Mark Rake-Marona, Ashley Ortenzo, Joey Schultz, Terrie Tillotta, Emily Tuomey, Steve Walker, Joe Woodland and Lance Zielinski.
Each has strong acting/dancing/singing skills. However, the one real stand-out in the Ensemble has to be Brynne Geiszler as the factory worker who taunts Fantine in one of the opening scenes; her singing is bold and her acting strong.
Lauren Nance charmingly plays Cosette as the quiet ingénue she is with love in her voice for the handsome Marius ably played by Technical Director Bruce Haasl. Haasl proves a double threat, he acts and sings as nicely as he does tech work.
Lisa Wright Thiroux and John Kelleher are M. and Mme Thenardier. These two are the comic relief in the show and keep the audience in chuckles each time they appear on stage. Emily Johnson is their daughter Eponine as a child.
Alena Menefee plays the harassed Fantine with desperation in her voice and her manner. Her “I Dreamed a Dream” leaves no dry eye in the audience; a nice job.
The part of Young Cosette is double cast with Lacy Krueger and Madison Watkins; Krueger performed opening night. This young girl has a great deal of stage presence for her age and has a winning, plaintive singing voice.
The part of Gavroche is also double cast with Austin Brooks and Kyle Frey. Brooks sung the role opening night and sported a rousing vocal range both in acting and singing.
Steve Barnett plays the Captain Enjolras. Never a disappointment, this is one of the better things Barnett has done. His voice was strong and demanded to follow the “beating of the drum.”
James Walters is Valjean. Walters has a very good singing voice, the quality of which is easy to hear and understand. Unfortunately, his acting ability is not up to his voice and he handles himself rather clumsily with on-stage movements. However, when he sings the fervent prayer, “Bring Him Home,” he excels in his part.
April Villanueva Santo Domingo is excellent as the unrequited Eponine. She exudes love for Marius in every note of “On My Own;” her physical presence on stage is perfect.
John Cooper is the relentless Javert. Cooper is strong in character and actions and voice. He is the villain you love to hate while instilling compassion in the audience’s heart. He makes Javert a driven tracker who can only believe he is right because it is the law. Bravo job.
“Les Misérables” continues at Tacoma Musical Playhouse at 7116 Sixth Avenue, just east of Jackson, through November 10, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
For reservations or more information, call the box office at (253) 565-6867 or go online to www.tmp.org.
“Les Misérables” has been translated into 22 languages and has been seen around the world. But in any language, ”Les Miz” is undoubtedly a magnificent show. It opened in London’s West End in 1985 and in its 29th year, it’s still going strong.
Now it comes to Tacoma. Make your reservations at Tacoma Musical Playhouse now before it’s too late to meet at the barricades for an evening of pure joy.