A quarter century after its Broadway debut, rights to the international musical phenomenon Les Misérables have at long last been released to community theaters across the U.S., news that may lead diehard Les Miz lovers to wonder if community theaters should even attempt to put on one of the world’s most spectacular musicals (emphasis on spectacle).

If the community theater in question is Actors Repertory Theatre Of Simi, the answer is a qualified yes.

Jean Valjean at the Barricade To begin with, ARTS (which stages its productions at the small but state-of-the-art Simi Valley Performing Arts Center) is not your average, everyday community theater, as its productions of Avenue Q and Spring Awakening have made abundantly clear, both of them comparing quite favorably with professional stagings.

Like Avenue Q and Spring Awakening, ARTS’ Les Miz benefits from some terrifically talented performers, a number of whom could well go on to regional theater success and perhaps even to The Great White Way. (Case in point: ARTS vet Tessa Grady is about to make her Broadway debut at age 19 in Annie as the appropriately named Star-To-Be.)

Valjean and Cosette Also, like previous ARTS productions, there are no canned tracks or mere single piano backing up the songs. ARTS shows feature a live orchestra, and in the case of Les Miz, what an orchestra this is—a grand total of fourteen musicians somehow squeezed into the “pit” between Row A and the Performing Art Center proscenium stage. Not only are these musicians considerable in number, they sound pretty darn close to the professional musicians you’d hear in an Equity show.

And speaking of Actors Equity, ARTS’ Jean Valjean is brought to life by the oh-so talented Geoffrey Going, given an Equity Guest Artist contract the better to ensure that this toughest of roles is done justice, an investment that pays off in Going’s powerfully sung, powerfully acted performance in what must surely be a dream role.

Marius and Cosette In fact, there’s not a bad voice in the entire cast of thirty-two, and in the case of Mazie Wilson (Eponine) and Alexandra Vann (Cosette), Wilson’s big belty vocalizing in “On My Own” and Vann’s lovely legit soprano in “A Heart Full Of Love” would not be out of place in a major regional production or national tour.

Ben Deschaine, ARTS’ Inspector Javert, is another cast standout, his “Stars” earning deserved applause, making the implacable inspector a formidable rival for Going’s noble Valjean.

Carlos Peñaranda (Thenardier) and Elizabeth Stockton (Madame Thenardier) get deserved laughs for bringing the comic-relief couple to colorful life. Leading men Edward Chamberlain (Enjolras) and Rehyan Rivera (Marius) and Mary Zastrow as tragic heroine Fantine show considerable promise in these iconic parts. Van McDuff makes the very most of his dual roles Bishop Of Digne and Major Domo, and little Stanley Miller wins hearts with his feisty, well-sung turn as Gavroche. (Mackinnley Balleweg alternates in the role.)

On Day More  In fact, the entire cast can feel proud of the talent and hard work that went into bringing a show as daunting as Les Misérables to the Simi Valley Performing Arts Center stage from the smallest child to the most seasoned adult: Timothy Borquez (Brujon), Steven Brogan (Lesgles), Cynthia Caldwell (Locket Crone), Sara Marie Calvey, Alyssa deBoisblanc and Natalie Esposito alternating in the role of Young Eponine, Tabitha Ellis, Denise Emery, Nicholas Ferguson (Combefrerre), Sharon Gibson (Hair Vendor), Isaiah Gonzalez (Jean Provaire), Allison Lobel (Factory Girl), Charles F. Martinez (Courfeyrac), Andy Mattick (Babet), Diego Maureira (Joly), Andrew Metzger (Grantaire), Ava Miele alternating with Mia Vavasseur in the role of Young Cosette, Jodie Morse, Isabella Phillips, Randle Rankin (Feuilly), Steve Rizzo (Claques, Factory Ensemble), and Timothy Velarde (Montparnasse). Alex Mohajer understudies the role of Valjean.

Though these individual cast members may not reach the vocal heights of their Broadway or touring counterparts (these being some of the most challenging musical theater roles ever written), when all of the above join voices, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between their full-cast harmonies and those of a quote-unquote professional cast. (Major kudos to musical director-conductor Matthew Parks.)

Becky Castells has choreographed a couple of lively dance sequences, though Les Miz doesn’t really offer the Simi Valley/ARTS regular the chance to shine that other productions have. (Kimberly Kiley is assistant choreographer.)

Where ARTS’ Les Misérables falls short, and the biggest reason for my recommendation to be made with reservations, is in the realm of spectacle, since if ever there were a musical in which production design is as much a part of its worldwide appeal as individual and ensemble performances, it is Les Miz. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the musical having become the record-breaking smash that it is without those design elements, and despite the best efforts of cast, director David Ralphe (who deserves high marks simply for undertaking and managing a project of this monumental scale), and a design team doing their darnedest on a limited budget, there’s something missing in a Lez Miz without elements that have been key to its international success.

Sean P. Harrington’s very modest production design does its best to set the scene, but many sequences are played in front of assorted curtains, though to do Harrington’s design justice, an attempt has been made to recreate Les Miz’s monumental barricades on the Simi Valley stage. Ken Patton’s costumes have just the right period look, and it doesn’t hurt that there aren’t a lot of rich people in Les Miz. Still, if I’m going to see Les Misérables, I’d prefer to see it in a production that can give me the entire omelette française, as was the case in last year’s 25th Anniversary Tour, which I described as “not only the most gorgeous Les Miz you’ve ever seen, it’s one of the most gorgeous productions ever.”

I can’t help wishing that ARTS had opted to stage Les Miz in concert form, as has been done with considerable success. Not only would that have placed the emphasis on the music and eliminated the need for spectacle, it would likely have brought the show in at less than its current three plus hours running time. Sunday’s matinee let out at 5:15, and evening performances probably end around 11:15, which is very long for a show to run.

There were significant amplification issues at the performance reviewed, and though a thoughtful apology was made after intermission for interference not the fault of the Simi Valley Performing Arts Center, several mikes in particular appeared to be malfunctioning, volume going on and off repeatedly throughout Fantine’s two big numbers, and to a lesser extent to Cosette’s and Eponine’s songs. (Fortunately, the males in the cast ended up escaping volume issues.)

Luis Ramirez is production stage manager. Les Misérables is produced by ARTS Artistic Director Jan Glasband.

As someone who has performed in numerous community theater productions over the years, I recognize the thrill cast members feel at getting their chance to play roles hitherto only dreamed of. I also understand the thrill that audiences experience when seeing friends and family on stage.  In both respects, ARTS’ Les Miz does the trick.

I don’t regret having seen the Actors Repertory Theatre Of Simi production of Les Misérables. Competing community theater productions on smaller budgets would have a hard time reaching the levels this production achieves when at its most effective. Still, I can’t help feeling that Les Miz is best when given a production that can deliver the whole spectacular shebang.

Actors Repertory Theatre Of Simi, Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley.

–Steven Stanley
July 21, 2013

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