When a musical runs over thirteen years on Broadway, it’s a long, long wait until regional theaters get a crack at it. Les Misérables lasted from 1987 to 2003 (6691 performances) and again from 2006 to 2008 (another 480 performances), and during those two decades, the show was never playing in more than two American cities at any one time. There was the Broadway production and there was the National Tour, and both of them featured Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s original direction, as well as the original design team’s sets, costumes, and lighting. Though casts changed, and changed, and changed again, it was still the same basic Les Miz, and no more than a few thousand theatergoers could ever see it on any given day (except of course for two-performance days).

Thus, when rights to Les Misérables were first granted to regional theaters about a year ago, it was an event to sing about. New directors could now stage the show with their own personal vision, regional performers could put their own stamp on iconic roles, and many more musical theater lovers across the country could be given the chance to experience the Broadway legend that is Les Miz.

This is welcome news indeed for visitors to the picturesque Dutch village of Solvang, California, home of the PCPA Theaterfest, where Les Misérables is now thrilling audiences with Victor Hugo’s classic tale as set to music by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, given fresh new life by director Roger DeLaurier and a superb cast of Equity and non-Equity performers.

If there’s anyone out there who’s never seen or heard of Les Miz (doubtful, but anything is possible), Hugo’s tale centers around two men in early 19th Century France, Jean Valjean the hunted, and Inspector Javert, the hunter. Valjean (Sam Zeller) has spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family.  When Valjean breaks his parole, Javert (Erik Stein) determines to pursue him to the bitter end.  Valjean later becomes the adoptive father of Cosette (Alexandra Medina as a child, Kaitlyn Casanova as an adult) as a way to compensate for harm he did to her mother Fantine (Valerie Rachelle). Other major characters include the student revolutionaries Enjolras (Colum Parke Morgan) and Marius (Michael Jenkinson), the latter of whom falls in love with Cosette. Providing a bit of comic relief are the Thenardiers (Andrew Philpot and Elizabeth Stuart), a couple of lying, cheating innkeepers and their daughter Eponine (Cheyenne Hardiman) who as an adult (Christine D. Alvarez) falls hopelessly in love with Marius.  Completing the large cast of principals is young Gavroche (Michael White), the beggar boy turned child revolutionary, with an additional twenty-seven performers in various supporting roles. Les Miz is, if nothing else, a really BIG SHOW.

It is also “sung through,” which means that there is minimum spoken dialog, and truth be told I’m not sung-though musicals’ biggest fan. They tend to be a tad too overwrought and lacking in humor for my tastes.  (Miss Saigon, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita are three other examples of the genre.)  That being said, I can’t deny the power of all four of these sung-through musicals and I’d gladly see another Les Miz if it’s as marvelously directed and performed as the one reviewed here.

PCPA staging is considerably less opulent than that of the Broadway and touring versions, which featured quite lavish sets, plenty of stage smoke, and a signature revolving stage floor that seemed almost never to stop spinning, as I recall from the one previous time I saw Les Miz (at the Pantages). What’s lost in Solvang in opulence is made up for by the cast’s superb performances and the intimacy gained though simplification. Jack Shouse’s sets (Christopher J. Mumaw is associate scenic designer) amply fill the production’s needs without being needlessly ostentatious. Besides, with a cast of thirty-nine, a splendid variety of period costumes by Frederick P. Deeben, a consistently gorgeous lighting design by Jennifer “Z” Zornow, an excellent sound design by Matt Carpenter, and a superb nineteen-piece orchestra under the direction of Callum Morris, this Les Miz remains a big and beautiful show.

Ultimately, Les Misérables is about the performances, and here PCPA has come up with a truly remarkable cast. As Valjean, L.A. favorite Zeller gives the performance of his career, epic work which showcases Zeller’s powerful acting chops and a fine tenor his frequent baritone roles don’t allow him to display. Doing towering work both in physical stature and emotional depth is an equally brilliant Stein. Jenkinson, who also choreographed the production, combines leading man good looks with one of the most glorious voices I’ve heard, and Morgan does fine, passionate work as well.  The women are in a word sensational.  Rachelle’s “I Dreamed A Dream” and Alvarez’s “On My Own” earn deserved cheers, and Casanova’s performance matches her wonderful work in West Side Story and Little Women.  Medina sings a lovely “Castle On A Cloud” and White a spunky “Little People.”  Philpot and Stuart are as entertaining a pair of scoundrels as you’re likely to see this year.  In smaller but similarly well performed supporting roles are Peter S. Hadres (Bishop & Montparnasse) and Corey Jones (Batambois & Combeferre).

Completing the all-around excellent ensemble are the following talented performers, many of whom are students in the PCPA training program for aspiring actors: Ben Abbott, John Barcellos, Aaron A. Bonilla, Bailey Durnin, Rhet Guter, William Thomas Hodgson, Keenon Hooks, Layli Kayhani, Jessica Kiely, Jerry Lee, Aaron Lopez, Sarah Maher, Michael Maisonneuve, Jennifer Marco, Kristina Melsheimer, Katie Newcomer, Dylan Perry, Chelsea Richter, Daniel J. Self, swing Nicholas Sheley, Kyle Smith, Louise Tremblay, Jillian Van Niel, Breena Wahl, and Holly Wigmore. 

For those who have never visited the charming California Danish town of Solvang, this is a perfect excuse for a drive north. Following Les Miz, PCPA has a great lineup for the rest of their summer season—The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Music Man, and a highly original comedy, Distracted, which played at the Taper two years ago. Right now, of course, the big news is their production of Les Misérables. Whether you’re a longtime Les Miz-head, or just someone who loves great musical theater, this Les Miz is not to be missed.

Festival Theater, 420 2nd Street, Solvang.

–Steven Stanley
June 13, 2009
                                 Photos: Luis Escobar/Reflections Photography Studio

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