Reston Community Players Les MiserablesBy Bob Ashby • Jan 26th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Reston Community Players: (Info) (Web)
Reston Community Center, Reston, VA
Through February 15th
3:00 with intermission
$18-$23 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed January 24th, 2013
This part of the country has a long history with Les Miserables. Shortly after Victor Hugo published his massive 1862 novel — my edition is a relatively svelte 1232 pages — to an at-best mixed critical reception, it became an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It was rapidly translated into English in versions issued in New York and Richmond, among other places, and troops on both sides of the Civil War read it avidly. With a brand of ironic soldier humor that hasn’t changed much in the 150+ intervening years, members of the Army of Northern Virginia took to calling themselves “Lee’s Miserables.”
Some 19th century commentators noted disapprovingly the highly sentimental tone of the novel, and, in adapting the story for their overwhelmingly successful 1980s musical treatment, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (original French lyrics), and Herbert Kretzmer (English lyrics) emphasized the lachrymose aspects of the story. Make no mistake, this musical is a six-hanky venture carefully calculated to stimulate an audience’s tear ducts. But here’s the thing: it works. Owing to the strength of Hugo’s characters, the adapters’ distillation of the novel’s sprawling plot into a series of its most dramatic episodes, and a score filled with beautiful and stirring songs, the musical never fails to be enormously moving, even as viewers may be aware of how cleverly the show manipulates their emotions.
Community theaters have been chomping at the bit for almost three decades for the rights to Les Miserables to become available, and it is fortunate for the area that Reston Community Players (RCP) is the first to get its hands on the property. RCP justifies its reputation as a top-notch company with this production, succeeding brilliantly in meeting the musical, dramatic, and technical demands of the show.
Les Miserables is commonly referred to as a “sung-through” (meaning quasi-operatic) musical, with recitative replacing much of what otherwise would be spoken dialogue. A production cannot succeed without a group of excellent singers, in the supporting and ensemble roles as well as in the leads. RCP’s casting is up to the task. Sean Bartnick (Marius), Scott Harrison (Enjolras), Cara Bachman (Cosette), Emma Lord (Eponine), and Jennifer Lambert (Fantine) all display first-rate solo voices that carry their well-known individual material flawlessly and with feeling.
The latter three do something significant beyond that, however, for which great credit is due them and director Andrew JM Regiec: they make their characters more than objects of sympathy. For example, Lambert sings “I Dreamed a Dream” in more of a belt than a straight lyric style, with an overlay of anger, affording her character more strength than it usually projects. This Fantine is far from being simply a victim. Rather than expressing hopeless self-pity, Lord’s “On My Own” portrays Eponine as a young woman asserting the power to contend with poverty and deep personal disappointment and to emerge as her own person. (In “A Little Fall of Rain,” she also touchingly follows an operatic convention analogous to the final aria of a Violetta or Mimi.) As she begins “In My Life,” and the surrounding scene in which she falls in love with Marius, Bachman’s visibly frustrated Cosette moves about her gated garden with the restless energy of a caged animal. Given her father’s intrinsic kindness, it’s some distance from a “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” moment, but the almost universal theme of a young girl longing for something beyond the limitations imposed by a parent reluctant to let her go resonates vividly in her singing and characterization. These dimensions of the young female characters in the show are something you don’t see in many Les Miserables productions, and they add a lot.
Harrison’s Enjolras is a suitably charismatic leader of the student revolt, who inspires his his fellow students with rousing renditions of “Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, beginning the latter in a very personal way with his hands on the shoulders of Gavroche (Ethan Van Slyke), an adventurous young street urchin. As a member of the insurrection, Bartnick’s Marius is fittingly callow and naïve (possessing exactly the qualities that one of Napoleon’s great generals, Marshal Ney, reportedly thought ideal for combat recruits: “innocence and hope”). He sings a flat-out gorgeous “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” which Regiec innovatively stages without a chair or table in sight, instead having the shades of his slain comrades pick up candles spaced around the stage and as they slowly leave Marius alone.
I saw a production of Othello recently in which the Iago was so powerful that I was tempted to root for him. Something akin to that happens in this production. If there is one dominant voice within the cast, it belongs to Ward Ferguson as Inspector Javert. Singing with something more of a tenor timbre than many who have assayed the role, Ferguson is mesmerizing in “Stars,” Javert’s anthem to his bedrock belief in the rightness and necessity of upholding the law, whatever the consequences. As he sings the song and acts his role, Ferguson makes clearer than I have seen in any previous production that, while Javert is Valjean’s mortal antagonist, he is no villain. In his own way, he is as much an idealist as the students who lead the abortive revolt, and his ideological commitment destroys him just as the students’ unwavering zeal destroys them.
The central character of Les Miserables is, of course, Jean Valjean. In a role requiring great physical and vocal stamina, Michael Reid’s performance emphasizes the many manifestations of his character’s steadfast goodness, no mean accomplishment given that goodness is often more difficult to make interesting than evil or internal conflict. Reid also brings to the foreground the tragic fact that, though having been released prison in 1815 and done much good during the remainder of his life, Valjean has never fully escaped the prison created in his own mind. He performs tenderly his most important song, “Bring Him Home.” The musical’s script mostly passes over the ambivalence and deep sadness with which Hugo’s Valjean reacts to Cosette’s maturing beauty and her growing attachment to Marius, tightening and simplifying the play’s story line while losing an important nuance of Valjean’s character. His rescue of Marius gains poignancy when we realize that there is much in Valjean that dearly wishes that the young man did not exist in Cosette’s life.
A number of smaller character roles also stand out. Rick Kenny has a sweet moment as a merciful priest. As M. and Mme. Thenardier, Chuck Dluhy and Alana Sharp are as horridly unsavory, mercenary, and downright creepy as one could ask for, and M. Thenardier becomes thoroughly evil as he picks saleable items off the dead following the revolt. (In the Hugo novel, Thenardier survives to emigrate to America, where he enters the slave trade.) “Master of the House” in act one and the couple’s attempted wedding-crashing in act two are the most comic moments in a script that does not give audiences much in the way of comic relief. One of the nice directorial moments that punctuate the show occurs when the Thenardiers place little Cosette (Ella Schnoor) on their laps and manipulate her like a floppy puppet in their attempt to raise the price that Valjean will pay to take her away. Van Slyke’s Gavroche provides the requisite energy and pluck as well as a strong singing voice.
Which brings up a bone I have to pick with not only this production, but with every production of Les Miserables I have ever seen. All the characters are French. All but M. Thenardier and Gavroche speak American English. These two speak with lower class British accents, as though Fagin and Oliver Twist had suddenly parachuted into Paris. This could work in a production mounted in the U.K., in which all characters speak British English, with accents appropriate to their class positions. But in an American production, it makes no sense. It’s a distracting performance tradition that directors on this side of the pond should hasten to discard.
The large ensemble, many of whose members also play a variety of small roles, consistently provided strong, in-tune, vocals in the group numbers like “Master of the House,” “Red and Black,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Likewise, the orchestra, led by Mark Deal, provides superb support. Coordination among soloists, ensemble, and orchestra was well-balanced throughout, though there were times when the ensemble’s sound levels were louder than necessary.
Notwithstanding its reputation as a large-scale, epic musical, Les Miserables has always been an unexpectedly intimate show in which an individual or a few characters carry the dramatic impact of a significant number of scenes and many of the most memorable songs. One doesn’t need an elaborate setting to make these moments work, and Regiec (who was involved with others in set design as well as directing) places many of them as front-of-curtain scenes, with only a portable set or set dressing piece sharing the stage with the actors. One of the more interesting of these was a larger-than-life cart in the scene in which Valjean rescues a man from being crushed under its wheels.
For larger, full stage scenes, like the streets of Paris or a port, the set painting crew provided well-executed backdrops, and a star curtain created a striking effect in (appropriately enough) “Stars” and the finale. Extensive and effective use is made of the Reston Community Center’s fly space, for everything ranging from different groups of windows to the bridge from which Javert sings “Stars” to two different portions of the sewer system in which Valjean, Marius, and Thenardier meet following the suppression of the revolt. Keeping all the set pieces moving in and out in good order was a substantial logistical task for which the stage managers and operating crew deserve praise.
And there is, of course, the barricade, probably the largest set construction challenge on a modest-sized stage. RCP executed the barricade persuasively; in fact, it is probably closer to the look of a barricade hastily thrown up by a bunch of militarily inexperienced students than the much taller, more imposing, more complex, barricade structure characteristic of most professional productions. RCP’s straightforward staging of battle scene also avoids what I have always considered a fault of the traditional professional staging, namely its implicit inflation of the scale and historical importance of the 1832 revolt involved in the story, a two-day affair limited to a few districts in Paris that had far less impact than the major civil conflicts of 1830, 1848, and 1871.
The light and sound designs, by Ken and Patti Crowley and Rich Bird, respectively, contributed greatly to battle scene at the barricade, with multicolored flashes of light, quick blackouts, strobe lights, and sounds of gunfire aiding the scene’s impact. The use of colors in the lighting of the Paris street backdrops, suggesting different times of day, and the “theatrical haze” employed regularly throughout the evening added to the atmosphere of the action.
Les Miserables is a big costume show, requiring everything from military uniforms to prison garb to suits for the affluent to near-rags for the poor to ritzy wedding outfits. Designers Charotte Marson and Whelihan met the challenge. The actors look good and appropriate for their scenes, and the cast and costume crew efficiently handled the repeated and often quick changes. Unlike all too many community theater productions, nothing in the makeup, hair, or wigs called attention to itself as out-of-place. Garvoche had an appropriately dirty face; other lower class folks and combatants looked rather cleaner than optimal.
Hugo’s novel ends with Valjean quietly dying in the company of Cosette and Marius, following which, according to his wishes, he is buried beneath a blank tombstone in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. The play’s authors appeared to struggle with the problem of how to create a more typical Broadway musical finale, settling on a rather incongruous mashup of Catholic piety — with Fantine leading Valjean to a heavenly reunion with the other characters who have died in the course of the story — and leftist revolutionary fervor, as the cast sings a reprise of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Even here, there are a couple of the delightful staging details that pervade RCP’s production, as when Gavroche is hoisted onto an ensemble member’s shoulders and Valjean embraces the priest who helped him in act one.
When a show, especially one as complex and demanding as Les Miserables, has had extensive audience exposure in nearly 30 years of professional productions, not to mention a recent big-budget film version, a community theater troupe must have not only the means but the ambition and confidence to attempt a production. RCP’s confidence in its ability to pull of this show, and the evident commitment of the cast and staff to the enterprise, are amply rewarded in what by any standard is an extraordinary performance. Washington-area audiences are notoriously over-generous about giving standing ovations: this Les Miserables, however, fully deserved every bit of acclaim it received.
Photos provided by Reston Community Players
- Cosette: Cara Bachman
- Marius: Sean Bartnick
- Ensemble/Montparnasse/Courfeyrac: Cameron Bond
- Ensemble: Erin Campagnoni
- Ensemble/Foreman/Combeferre/Champmathieu: Michael Clendenin
- Thenardier: Chuck Dluhy
- Javert: Ward Ferguson
- Ensemble/Legles/Babet: Patrick Graham
- Enjolras: Scott Harrison
- Ensemble/Bamatabois/Claquesons/Feuilly: Eric Hughes
- Ensemble: Kate Keifer
- Ensemble/Bishop Digne/Fauchelevant: Rick Kenney
- Fantine: Jennifer Lambert
- Eponine: Emma Lord
- Ensemble/Jean Prouvaire: Matt McFadden
- Ensemble/Brujon/Grantaire/Fight Captain: Jeffery Miller
- Ensemble: Shauna Neil
- Ensemble: Bridgette Pfannenbecker
- Ensemble: Stephanie Pencek
- Jean ValJean: Michael Reid
- Little Cosette: Ella Schnoor
- Mdm. Thenardier: Alana D. Sharp
- Little Eponine: Maggie Slivka
- Ensemble: Susana Todd
- Gavroche: Ethan Van Slyke
- Ensemble/Joly: Joshua Wilson
- Reeds: Mitch Bassman, Alisha Coleman, Jane Hughes, Gwyn Jones, Jeff Kahan
- Horn: Deb Kline
- Trumpet/Flugelhorn: Michael Barber, Jose Luis Oviedo
- Trombone: Scott Fridy, Rick Schutz
- Violin: Devon Oviedo
- Cello: Virginia Gardner, Kevin Uleck
- String Bass: Randy Dahlberg, Richard Netherton
- Keyboard: Steve Przybylski, Timothy Smith
- Producer: Richard E. Schneider
- Director: Andrew JM Regiec
- Music Director/Conductor: Mark V. Deal
- Assistant Director: Lee Slivka
- Stage Manager: Kaiti Parish
- Assistant Stage Manager: Eileen Mullee
- Choreographer: Andrew JM Regiec
- Audition and Rehearsal Pianists: Matt Jeffrey, Sue Mason McElroy, Steve Przybylski, Elisa Rosman, Timothy Smith, Jim Watson
- Technical Director: Skip Larson
- Set Design: Greg Steele, Skip Larson, Andrew JM Regiec, Richard E. Schneider
- Master Carpenter: Greg Steele
- Set Construction: Greg Steele, Skip Larson, Stephanie DeRosa, Cameron Kelly, James Maxhead, Scott Birkhead, Tim Skjerseth, Dana Van Slyke, Linda Liner, Jon Morgan, Lylia Eberle
- Painting Scenic Drops: Cathy Rieder, Sabrina Begley, Maggie Cotter
- Set Painting: Bea Morse, Cathy Rieder, Lylia Eberle, Karl Meier, Kate Meier, Linda Liner, Cynthia Frost
- Stage Crew Chief: Sara Birkhead
- Head Flyman: Laura Baughman
- Stagehands: Richard Durkin, Lylia Eberle, Cameron Kelly, Michael Kwan, James Maxted, Eric Saule, Nila Selvaraj, Alan Taylor, Greg Steele, David Johnson, Skip Larson
- Properties Design: Mary Jo Ford
- Performance Properties: Carol Watson, Darryl Hoffman
- Set Decoration: Bea Morse
- Lighting Design: Ken and Patti Crowley
- Electricians: Alex Lee, Mike O’Connor
- Sound Design: Rich Bird
- Sound Operators: Jason Willett, Vinnie Prabhu
- Costume Design: Charlotte Marson Judy Whelihan
- Costume Creators: Kati Andresen, Maria Bissex, Kathy Dunlap, Sarah Maxted, Holly McDade, Joanne Quam, Mary Rankin, Carol Steele
- Dressers: Maria Bissex, Mary Rankin, Carol Steele, Linda Line
- Hair: Mary Price
- Wigs: Anna Michelle Jackson
- Makeup: Suzanne Thomas
- Fights & Stunts: Karen Schlumpf
- Fight Captain: Jeffery Miller
- Company Manager: Laura Baughman
- Advertising Representative: Mary Jo Ford
- Publicity and Promotion: Dianne Schnoor
- Assisted by: Laura Chaves, Becky Manicone, Sara Machacek, Shauna Neil
- Photography: Traci J. Brooks
- Production Historian: David Holt
- House Manager: Darryl Hoffman
- Dramaturg: Barbara Wilson
- Showbill Production: Ginger Kohles, Sue Pinkman
Disclaimer: Reston Community Players provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review. RCP also purchased advertising on the ShowBizRadio web site, which did not influence this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10075.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.