“Les Mis,” as the play is affectionately referred to, is a big production, but the smaller stage and theatre of the Randall L. Jones Theatre offers a much more intimate and tender treatment of the work than one is likely to see replicated with the usual grand scale and giant stage on which the play is typically set.
The director and artistic staff accomplished a completely new experience for seasoned fans of the show, and, particularly pleasing to fans of the story, affixed a place for the iconic characters in the hearts and minds of the audience.
In short, Utah Shakespeare’s production of “Les Miserables” is a far more “human” experience than the “Les Mis” most audiences are used to seeing.
From the time of conceiving the path this production would take, director Brad Carroll said he had no interest in reproducing the “Les Mis” audiences have already seen with a colossal turntable and hydraulic barricade, but instead wanted to do the Utah Shakespeare Festival production of “Les Mis” that would be unique and fresh.
The best stories are always about the characters and the people, but in “Les Mis,” with the quick movements from scene to scene and heart-wrenching melody to stirring anthem, the truth and tenderness of the very warm and human stories being told are often lost.
The intimate space of the theatre, the chemistry and talent of the actors, and the direction of Carroll, transforms the play from a cold epic to an intimate shared experience between character and audience.
This production of “Les Mis” is less about stunning technical feats of theatrical stage craft where perhaps the technical crew deserves the true standing ovation at close of curtain, and instead it is a production that affixes its spotlight on the actors, the seamless, well-crafted performances; the human story written by Hugo and the soaring and heart-catching score executed in a manner that creates more chills and warm butterflies in the audience than a day riding roller coasters, and a room full of puppies, babies, and rainbows.
In fact, the word du jour after leaving “Les Mis” is “chills.” The chorus numbers are masterfully performed by actors with solo-quality voices that offer numbers so stirring and beautiful that the three-hour performance is simply not long enough.
There was a feeling at curtain call that the crowd would willingly remain and hear more just for the promise of that involuntary feeling of warm chills, (an accurate mixed metaphor) created by the perfect orchestra and purely talented chorus.
“Les Mis” is a story told only with music, with no spoken dialogue, making the orchestra a vital, though unseen, component. The orchestra did its job wonderfully by being so perfect one forgot they were there entirely and the audience just floated along on its ceaseless magic carpet of sound.
With the smaller theatre and stage, the faces and reactions of the actors are not lost on the audience and become an integral silver string of humanity that binds the production to the emotions of the audience and pulls them along on the journey.
The culminating achievement, is that this, my friends, is a journey and an experience that can only end in tears, as it rightly should.
Regardless how often audiences have heard the music or the story, the intimacy and tenderness, and relationships of the characters to one another portrayed in this production will strike a chord of emotion that may surprise you.
The seemingly small gestures and interaction between the characters while the score soars forward did not seem the least bit corny, awkward, nor staged to mimic a natural interaction just to fill staged space, but waxed genuine and organic and contributed greatly to opening up of the emotion and heartache of the audience to the cast, the story, and the work.
In books, movies, and on stage, the “epic” tale often loses its humanity, but Carroll managed to bridge the gap between the epic story, and the moments of intimate, frail humanity and knit the two together in a manner that is unique and again, chilling.
The camaraderie between the band of brothers singing at the tavern and bravely fighting at the barricade was particularly poignant and palpable. The actors interacted like old friends with warm chemistry.
The casting of the production is nothing less than miraculous and is a tribute to the wealth of talent that exists in the world of theatre. Each character looks just as one would imagine they should in relation to and within the configuration of the cast and how they relate to one another.
One of the great stories of the festival is the casting of J. Michael Bailey as the center character Jean Valjean and he does not disappoint in the role.
Bailey was relatively unknown prior to this casting and won the role over actors with much longer resumes. Bailey, however was magnificent in vocal and acting ability and looked and sounded every bit the part that carries with it so much expectation.
The villain and foil to Valjean, Inspector Javert, was played with depth unusual to the role by Brian Vaughn and the two actors filled the stage with colossal energy and power.
The cast is filled with amazing actors and voices that leave the audience wondering why every character isn’t a lead.
Andy Nagraj, who portrays the bishop who gives Valjean a new life, has a rich baritone voice that leaves the audience gasping for more as does Joey Benedetto, who plays the young man leading the students to revolution.
Benedetto is tall, dark, and wonderfully French in appearance with rare charisma and stage presence spurred along by a soaring, beautiful voice that pulls the audience to the edge of their seats.
His height and power in contrast to the smaller in stature and sweeter character of Marius, who matches his Cosette and pining Eponine, fits in the production like pieces in a puzzle as the show unfolds and tells its own version of the classic story.
Even smaller roles are graced by truly fine actors who richly connect to the audience such as Ben Jacoby, who plays a French student and portrayed Tom in last years well-wrought production of “The Glass Menagerie.” Jacoby has such presence and innate acting ability he adds a great deal to the production, making every scene seamless and genuine.
Talent such as Jacoby’s, even in a smaller roles throughout the production, graces the whole stage and elevates the production, creating a cornucopia of spine tingling moments.
There is not the smallest doubt that audiences will return and return to experience this production just as one can’t help but feel the butterflies and chills when plummeting off the top of a roller coaster; the music and actors, so close to the audience in this production, delivering on the promise offered in the score and story, deliver the chills that will keep audiences lining up for another and another ride.