Debbie Croft: “Les Misérables” has taken over Sierra Repertory Theatre stage

March 14, 2014 

DEBBIE CROFT

Where “the blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France,” Jean Valjean’s redemption story begins. The curtain rises on Toulon, France. The year is 1815. And the haunting musical prologue sweeps the audience to a somber period of French history.

The ever-popular “Les Misérables” has currently taken over the Sierra Repertory Theatre stage. The French flag hanging in the lobby is from the actual 2012 film production of “Les Miz.”

The epic musical is based on the novel and was first performed in Paris in 1980. With music composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg, the script is entirely sung. French lyrics were written by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. The English text was written by Herbert Kretzmer.

Victor Hugo’s thoroughly tragic and romantic tale actually takes place four decades following the French Revolution. But the nation’s problems are hardly over, as oppression of the masses continues.

At a time when too many of his society selfishly grasp for any and every bit of sustenance, a bishop’s generous display of goodness leaves its mark on the heart of one not altogether depraved.

Known as “convict 24601” from 19 years in the Bagne prison, Valjean breaks parole. Assuming a new identity, he establishes himself in Montreuil-sur-Mer. There Valjean becomes a prominent businessman and the town mayor. Eventually, though, he is discovered by Inspector Javert, who had been a guard at Bagne.

From there the story unfolds, complicating Valjean’s life. Yet in the end, freedom from a painful past is finally his.

The cast and crew pour everything they have into this three-hour production. From grief and anxiety to elation and even humor, emotion runs deep.

Throughout, we sense a connection with the characters. The intimacy of a 200-seat auditorium contributes to the feeling of being immersed in the drama.

It was Jennifer Swartz’s first time to see a professional stage production. In the past she has only seen community theater plays. Based on the appearance of the theater, she didn’t expect much.

But as the show progressed, Swartz sat completely enthralled.

More than 500 actors and actresses auditioned for the 32 roles. SRT scooped the cream right off the top. And when the combined cast sang together for the first time, producing director Dennis Jones admitted, he listened in amazement.

Cliff McCormick in the lead role of Valjean is outstanding in every scene, on every level of expression.

As Javert, Eric Jon Mahlum never cracks a smile. Only relentless determination carves his stone face. His brilliant duet with McCormick leaves the audience speechless.

Young Miori Kennedy melts hearts and steals the show as Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, with her rendition of “Castle on a Cloud.”

The innkeepers are the lowest of the low, but their talented melodramatic interpretations give comic relief between the heartbreak. Chris Vettel and Cathy Schenkelberg star as Monsieur and Madame Thénardier.

Highly trained, award-winning Sierra Naomi plays Fantine.

Lori Lusted’s powerful voice is well-suited in the role of the older Cosette.

Garrett Marshall plays Marius, whose character matures over time.

Katy Harvey’s performance as a grown Eponine is truly compelling. Her sacrificial love for Marius breaks the audience’s collective heart.

Aiden Mitchell, a 12-year-old from Merced, is Gavroche. He also filled this role in Playhouse Merced’s production of “Les Miz” – a great performance from one so young.

Authentic set design, staging and lighting were ingeniously devised. Utilizing ghostly fog, filmy curtains, props constructed for multitasking, plus much more, the surroundings are believably transformed. The audience’s attention is easily carried from one scene to the next.

In the theater’s limited space, the chorus numbers and choreography were superbly done. Every cast member, no matter what role they play, deserves the lengthy standing ovations being given after their performances.

In the first two weeks of SRT’s 35th anniversary season opener, “Les Miz” has already earned well-deserved praise. Authentic costumes and sets, the lighting, artwork, a cast of more than 30 accomplished actors and actresses, plus the riveting music all combine to make this one of the company’s most stellar productions.

On their first date 30 years ago, Mike and Sharron Cook from Ripon attended SRT’s “Funny Valentines.” Since then they’ve attended dozens of Sierra Rep’s plays.

“We’ve never been disappointed,” said Mike Cook.

At a recent showing of “Les Miz,” Sharron Cook commented that “the vocals are excellent. They’re done so well, you forget where you are.”

“Les Miz” runs for two months through May 4 at East Sonora Theatre. Not for children, the play earns its PG-13 rating with coarse humor and a scene in the red light district.

A Director’s Brunch is planned for April 6, featuring French cuisine and a question/answer session with Jones. Guest artists will also attend. The brunch is open to the public, but seating is limited.

Call 209) 532-0502, visit www.sierrarep.org, or email bhandelman@sierrarep.org for more information.

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at composed@tds.net.

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