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Impressive, must see “Les Miz” @ Great Lakes Theater

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association and Cleveland Critics Circle)

“Les Misérables” is a classic historical novel by Victor Hugo.  It is probably one of the most noted literary pieces of the 19th century. “Les Misérables,” Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s musical adaptation of the novel has become an epic of the musical theatre stage.

The script is usually performed in grand style with large sets, a huge cast, a big orchestra.  The Great Lakes Theater’s production of “Les Miz,” as it is commonly called, takes a somewhat different approach.  The ingenious Victoria Bussert has reimagined the show as a smaller, more intimate, more personal offering. Bussert’s concept works wonderfully.

The Hanna Theatre, GLT’s Cleveland home is a perfect venue for Bussert’s concept.  The audience is up close to the happenings, making every action, every emotional feeling, every nuance, observable.   The cast, the theatrical elements, and the musicians, don’t let the audience down.

Hugo was a commentator on the French condition during the 19th century.  He examines such topics as morality, the power and place of religion, the justice system, the role and format of the family, and the corruption of the times.

His “Les Miz” gives a vision of the frustrations of the people with the royal system of the time.  It exposed the injustices of the legal system, where a man can get a long prison sentence for stealing bread, food intended for a starving nephew.  It tells of how, even after serving his sentence, the man must carry papers and a body signature that tattoo him for life as a convict.  It illustrates the frustration of a group of idealistic dreamers who wish to make changes, but lack the skills, the tools, and the support to exact alterations in a bad governmental system.

The musical version, a two-year labor which the writers call a period of “cutting, condensing and shaping,” resulted in a moving tale that parallels the book, and gives further light to Hugo’s message.

When it opened in London, the show received mixed reviews.  Cameron Mackintosh, the show’s producer, who reported that he was in an “elevated state” due to the powerful emotion of the cast and audiences, as the preview period came to an end, was surprised by the reviews.   He said, “I couldn’t reconcile the sense of uplift and exhilaration I had witnessed in the theatre with these words [the reviews].”  The public seemed to take the reviews in stride, and besieged the box office for tickets.  The results have been astounding.

The show has been translated into 22 languages, has played in 42 countries and is still running in London.  The original New York show ran 6,680 performances, one of the longest runs on-Broadway. It was recently revived on the great white way.

The centerpiece of the story is Jean Valjean, a prisoner who serves his time, breaks parole, steals silver from a priest who was kind enough to take him in, is caught by the police, and released when the clergyman tells his captors that the silver was a gift.  Valjean transforms himself into a self-made successful, moral man, but is sought after by Inspector Javert, who obsessively perceives it his mission to catch convict 20641.  Valjean becomes wealthy, assumes responsibility for the daughter (Cosette) of a former worker [Fantine] at his manufacturing factory, who was slandered by gossip, cast out, turned to prostitution, becomes ill, and is visited in the hospital by Valjean who promises to raise Fantine’s daughter as his own.  The rest of the tale follows Valjean, Fantine and Marius, one of the student leaders of an attempted revolt to change the governmental system, as they live out their lives against the background of 19th century France.

Bussert has taken the serious underbelly of the tale, softened it with some humor, and fashioned a musical tale that clearly develops the story, stresses Hugo’s intentions, and presents the musical aspects in a glorious vision.  This is a masterful job of directing.

Instead of the usual massive set on a turntable and an impregnable barricade, scenic designer Jeff Herrmann, has given a fragmented, suggestive vision.  The barricade is made of regular household items—bed headboards, tables and chairs—things that would have been really used to create a makeshift structure.  They are staked from the floor and hung from the fly gallery to create an impression of what might have been part of the battle.  Houses, the sewer, walls, the ballroom are suggested in such ways that there is no question of where the scene is taking place.  The only slightly out of kilter visual was the illusion of Javert’s body falling into the water after he jumped off a bridge.

Musical director Joel Mercier and his orchestra present a lush and well interpreted sound that highlights the action and supports rather than drowning out the singers.  The individual and choral singing is excellent.

Esther M. Haberlen’s era-correct costume designs enhanced the production, as did Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting and Amanda Werre’s sound design.  Gregory Daniels choreography added to the show’s quality.

The cast is generally excellent.  Stephen Mitchell Brown displayed a well-trained voice in his portrayal of Jean Valjean.  He knows how to sing meanings, not just words so the songs resonated with the audience.  His “Bring Him Home” brought the show to a stop as a result of a screaming positive audience reaction.  His rendition of “Who Am I?” was another of the show’s highlights.

Jodi Dominick, as Fantine, was properly down trodden by life’s issues of having an illegitimate child, being abandoned by the child’s father, and being the brunt of unfair gossip.   Her role interpretation was excellent, her musical version of “I Dreamed a Dream” was emotionally tear inducing.

Brian Sutherland, as the obsessive Javert, displayed a solid singing voice. “Stars” was well interpreted.  He could have been more menacing, thus enhancing the emotional level of his dealing with Valjean.

Kyle Jean Baptist displayed a strong voice and a powerful stage presence as Enjolras, the leader of the rebellious students.

Though both were fine,Tracee Patterson (Madame Thénardier) and Tom Ford (Thénardier) could have had added even a little more farce to their roles.

Capsule judgement:  Director Victoria Bussert and her production team fashioned  a marvelous and impressive “Les Misérables.” Besides the quality of staging, it’s worth seeing the show, to experience Stephen Mitchell Brown’s ownership of the difficult role of Jean Valjean. The GLT production is an absolutely must see! 

“Les Misérables” runs through November 2, 2014 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets go to: 216-664-6064 or