Les Misérables: Hope Rep’s “Les Miz” brings it home
The epic musical “Les Misérables” is about poverty and desperation nearly two centuries ago and thousands of miles away. Yet Victor Hugo’s classic tale of redemption seems right at home at Holland’s Hope Summer Repertory Theatre.
I fell in love with “Les Miz” 25 years ago when I saw it in London, and I’ve reviewed numerous professional productions since then. But Hope Rep’s show, which opened Thursday, offers a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with these iconic characters. In the 400-seat DeWitt Center Theater, the audience wraps around three sides of the room-filling thrust stage. The large cast spills off the stage and down the aisles. You can feel the brush of their skirts, see the gleam in their eyes, hear every dying gasp.
Hope’s large company of acting students populate the factories, brothels, bars and barricades of Paris while a team of professional guest stars command major roles. But one of the neatest elements of this production is that music director Fred Tessler has his large orchestra spread across the back of the stage where the source of the lush music is visible more than half the time.
Director David Colacci uses every inch of available space from a trap door in the center of the stage to a side balcony high above. This is particularly effective in the Act I finale, “One Day More,” as the contagious beat of the student rebellion gathers more and more people from every direction.
Kansas City Equity actor and opera singer Vigthor Zophoniasson portrays the central character, Jean Valjean , an ex-convict who is transformed by the mercy of a priest. Zophoniasson easily convinces the audience of the convict’s anger and frustration that is changed into compassion and moral leadership. Although Zophoniasson has a strong and vibrant voice, his vocal range appeared a bit strained opening night.
Oklahoma gospel singer Isaiah Bailey plays the villain, the rigid police Inspector Javert who pursues Valjean relentlessly. Hope favorite Chip Duford brightens the show as the comical Thenardier, inn keeper and scoundrel extraordinaire. Chicago actress Shannon Huneryager portrays his equally funny and outrageously coifed wife.
Among the standout student performances are Callee Miles as Eponine, Brianna Brice as Cosette and Benjamiin Lohrberg as Marius. Muskegon’s 10-year-old Leo Ackerman plays the pint-sized rebel Gavroche while younger sister Lucy Ackerman is the wide-eyed young Cosette.
In a production with lots of death scenes, Eponine’s is particularly well done. Colacci positioned the dying girl center stage in the arms of Marius. Everyone is hanging on their tender final song, “A Little Fall of Rain,” so much so that all the on-stage characters gasped in unison at one point. It was a nice touch. Her final throe is a haunting, wide-eyed stare that won’t be easily forgotten. Little Gavroche also died well, falling midsentence across a dead soldier at the crack of a gun.
I mention these well-done deaths because some of the ensemble members haven’t caught the knack yet and that can be distracting in a battle scene where lots of bodies are falling awkwardly. That’s the sort of thing that will no doubt smooth out after a few performances.
Technical problems are bound to arise in such a massive show, and Hope did a good job handling a major snafu opening night. In the second act, the set includes a mind-boggling
barricade of piled up furniture and boxes that simply rises on cue from beneath the stage. This is a formidable wall maybe 10 feet tall and the width of the stage. Characters are climbing all over it and fighting their battle for a good portion of the second act. When the battle was over and the stage was littered with bodies, the barricade began to disappear for the next scene, but the mechanism ran into an obstruction. Stage manager Erin Lindsey Carr called a halt to the play, house lights came up and director Colacci announced an extra 15-minute intermission while the technical crew repaired the lift.
Once the barricade was safely tucked under the stage again, the play resumed without a hitch.
Special kudos to lighting designer Stephen Sakowski. In a show like this with minimal sets, lights create the rooms and walls. Lighting was especially effective in Valjean’s conversion experience. He is kneeling center stage with the silver he has stolen, and the covered footlights around the rim of the stage give his face an almost ethereal glow on the otherwise darkened stage.
Although Hope Rep normally alternates shows so a production is available throughout the summer season, licensing requirements for “Les Misérables” limit the run. If you want to catch this production of “Les Miz,” you’d better get to Holland before June 30. There won’t be one day more.
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
DeWitt Stage, 141 E. 12th St., Holland
June 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 23, 24, 29, 30, 2015
Evenings at 8:00 p.m.; single matinee on June 20 at 1:30 p.m.