Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Les Misérables at the Civic

If you haven't had a chance to see the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre's production of Les Misérables, you're missing a real treat.
Our family always goes to see the Civic's children's musical at Christmas, but my mother, sister, and I went to see Les Miz this weekend, and I was very impressed at what a fantastic production our local talent put on. While obviously there are more constraints in a small theater with a volunteer cast, I felt just as moved by the performance as I did when I saw it at DeVos in the 1990s. Part of this is the music itself, how lovely it is, and part of it is that the play's themes of income inequality, misuse of government resources to pursue innocent (or at least less guilty) parties, the plight of single mothers, and widespread suffering resonate especially well now, although Americans haven't experienced suffering in the same way that the 19th-century French citizens Victor Hugo described did.

The Civic Theatre was the first community theater that Music Theatre International approached with the opportunity of producing  the musical. There is a short window of time - 18 months - that it can be staged by regional theaters as Les Misérables is currently not playing on Broadway, nor it is touring the country.

Those familiar with the story know that it revolves around Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to five years' hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to save his nephew from starvation. He ends up serving nineteen years in total as a result of an escape attempt, and the play opens with his release from prison. Inspector Javert informs him that he will always be watching him and expects the worst. This sets up the first conflict: how Valjean will survive when he is even less likely to have opportunities as a known convict. The audience observes him falter and right himself, fail and then come to the aid of a fallen woman with a child, adopt an orphaned girl, and, eventually, become embroiled in the Paris Uprising of 1832. At its heart, this is a redemption story.

In our local production, Valjean is played by Jeremiah Postma, who is well suited to Valjean physically and musically. Unbelievably, this is Postma's first performance at the Civic - the role requires enormous vocal range and endurance, as well as strong acting skills. Postma frankly owned the stage and was particularly adept at conveying Valjean's slow aging process and loss of vitality.

David Duiven plays Javert. I last saw Duiven as Captain Von Trapp at Christmas time. He did a creditable job conveying Javert's utter inflexibility, but sounded a bit hoarse on Sunday.

The show's three female leads, Fantine, Cosette, and Eponine, were played by Kelsey Kohlenberger, Audrey Filson, and Molly Jones, respectively. All of their voices were fantastic, Filson's being especially clear, although Kohlenberger's suited very well the tragedy of Fantine. Eponine's parts are frequently of the outsider/third wheel kind, and she blended well with Cosette's, Marius's, and Valjean's parts. Her solo pieces were some of the show's most touching.

Marius was played by Michael Peneycad, who looked very 19th-century swoony poet radical and had a strong, passionate voice. The comic relief, necessary in a story this grim, was provided by John Girdlestone and Sarah Lacroix, as Thenardier and Madame Thenardier. It was obvious that Girdlestone had professional experience - he expertly worked the crowd and was very enjoyable to watch. Lacroix complemented his talents well.

Of course, a large part of the story involves the average French citizenry's suffering, so a great chorus is necessary and was more than provided by our local Grand Rapidians. The set decoration was well done, and costuming was suitably bleak and evocative.

All in all, I heartily recommend this production. I personally cried buckets at the end.  I enjoyed it far better than the 2012 film with Hugh Jackman and don't mind doing a little informal online marketing on its behalf.  Take the opportunity to see it before its run ends on March 30.