NC Theatre’s current production of Les Misérables was exceptional, especially considering the immensity of the musical.
Les Misérables, set during the French Revolution, is the epic story of Jean Valjean, a reformed convict, and those around him. It is a story of faith, life and classism–a great work of art based on the novel by Victor Hugo and transformed for the stage by Alan Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg.
The musical is utterly huge, requiring a large, massively talented cast. A long musical, with demanding songs, emotional heaviness and generally tremendous themes, it is no small feat to cast and direct it well. At Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, they seemingly succeeded.
Though nobody could ever meet the expectations set by Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean from the West End, Broadway and US Tour, Craig Schulman came pretty close on most songs. His rendition of “Bring Him Home,” Wilkinson’s signature, was truly incredible. His falsetto was beautiful, and he hit every note with emotion. The weakest part of his performance was “What Have I Done,” toward the beginning of the first act. He tried to do too much with the song, and it simply didn’t work–he shouted some lines unnecessarily.
The highlight of the production was the second act, if only for the actors on stage. Les Amis d’ABC, the young, revolutionary students, were extraordinary, Charlie Brady, Bruce Landry and Joseph Spieldenner (who played Enjolras, Marius and Grantaire respectively) especially. They sang and acted beautifully, passionately in “Red and Black” and tragically in “Drink with Me.” Landry’s potent performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was exquisitely moving, and the direction of the scene was fantastic as well.
English Bernhardt, Eponine (a young, poor girl in love with Marius), and Julie Benko, Cosette (Fantine’s daughter, whom Valjean adopts, and Marius’ love), were also amazing. Bernhardt nailed every note of “A Little Fall of Rain,” and Benko sounded like a “lark,” exactly in line with Hugo’s description of Cosette in the novel and perfect for the songs Boubil and Schönberg wrote. My only critique of Bernhardt, a student at Ravenscroft, is her altering of the tempo in Eponine’s signature “On My Own,” singing it slightly quicker than it is sung normally.
Alison Cimmet, Madame Thénardier, wife of the scamming innkeeper, Thénardier, lightened the mood superbly with her comedic talent (as required by the character) and excellent voice. Her counterpart, Dirk Lumbard, Thénardier, missed some marks in their big first act number (even messing up one line, though he handled it seamlessly), “Master of the House,” but gave a first-rate performance in “Dog Eat Dog.”
Even so, Chuck Wagner, though a wonderful singer, lacked a certain gravitas necessary to portray Javert, the police inspector after Valjean, well. In “Javert’s Suicide,” Wagner did not completely demonstrate the depth of his character. Lauren Kennedy, another Raleigh native, was also missing something in her portrayal of Fantine–she belted the lines well, but she missed the softness. She sang delightfully, and “I Dreamed a Dream” was great; although, “Come to Me,” arguably the sadder of Fantine’s two big numbers, did not possess the sadness expected. Her own daughter–in real life–played Young Cosette on stage, and she still somehow missed the mark expressing that mother-daughter love in her final song.
Though not perfect, the cast still managed to convey a quality most critical with every production of Les Misérables: the idea that each and every character would choose to sing as their first method of communication. There is not a spoken word in the entire musical–everything is sung–yet every actor and actress on stage made that seem so incredibly natural. Despite flaws in performances, the ability to hit this mark proves this production was well-cast.
As a local production, NC Theatre’s Les Misérables was phenomenal. As a production of Les Misérables regardless of location, it was still magnificent, but nowhere near perfect. Still, Les Misérables is a must-see for Les Misérables and theatre fans alike.