Stage review: ‘Les Miserables’ delivers inspiration
A young single mother struggles to support her child. When she is terminated from her job, there are no public assistance benefits to help her with child care and other expenses. In selling her body, she becomes deathly ill and is threatened with arrest. At her last breath, a benevolent stranger steps in, pledging to care for her little girl. At the same time, he seeks to redeem himself from a dark past.
Because the story could have taken place in any modern community, it strikes a chord with audiences all over the world. Theater enthusiasts know the premise of the dramatic hit musical, “Les Miserables.” Set in early 19th century France, it is a blend of tragedy, comedy, suspense and realism, set to inspiring music.
The story spans nearly 30 years with a demanding, non-stop format and multiple turning points. Each company performing the show must put its own spin on this production, based on the physical properties of the venue and the local talent pool.
The Ritz Players has undertaken “Les Miserables” to close out the 2013-14 season at The Ritz Theatre. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and July 19. A 2 p.m. matinee July 20 closes the run.
Director Jim Cook has assembled a talented cast of actors, musicians and technicians to bring the spectacle to life. Randy Halen designed the set with multiple puzzle pieces that move to frame the action, along with lighting, sound effects, drops and a lighted screen that projects the dates and silhouettes to suggest some scenes. Local artist Martin McFerren added final details to the set.
Eric Hertenstein portrays the main character, Jean Valjean.
Released from 19 years in prison for a minor crime, his efforts to return to a law-abiding life are thwarted at every turn. He finds hope in a kindly bishop, played by Michael Strong, who saves Valjean from returning to prison. In return, the bishop challenges Valjean to let God guide his life. To do so, Valjean breaks his parole and re-invents himself.
While Valjean is building a respectable life for himself, Inspector Javert is on a quest to find the fugitive and put him back behind bars. Seth Innis is cast as the self-righteous Javert, who truly believes Valjean to be a dangerous criminal and a danger to society.
The conflict between these two strong characters keeps the audience on edge, even though most patrons already know the story.
As the owner of a factory, Valjean allows an employee, Fantine, to be dismissed, based on hearsay by her co-workers and the foreman. When Valjean later discovers she has fallen into a desperate lifestyle, he wants to make amends. Sarah Engeman is cast as the desolate Fantine, who is crushed by the burdens of her life.
Javert reappears to threaten Valjean, just as he is about to rescue Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, played by Ava Breyman. As Fantine dies, Valjean and Javert engage in a vocal battle before Vajean manages to escape and dash off to the inn where Cosette is staying.
Jennifer Hill and Charles Groth portray the boisterous and shifty innkeepers, the Thenardiers. They masterfully perform “Master of the House” in a funny and rousing spectacle that contrasts the entrance of Valjean with Cosette. The Thenardiers quickly compose themselves, posing as devoted foster parents to Cosette and their own daughter, Eponine, played by Rosaline Hertenstein.
Valjean negotiates with the innkeepers and whisks Cosette off to a new life with a caring father.
Years have passed, with Valjean and the now-grown Cosette living in Paris. The bedraggled common people bemoan their poverty at the expense of the rich, and a band of idealistic university students contemplate what they can do to change the status quo. The Thenardiers, with their grown-up Eponine, show up to glean what they can from the unrest, and Javert is on hand to observe a potential disturbance. As Valjean and Cosette pass near a resistance rally, a student named Marius catches sight of her and instantly falls in love. Cast as Marius and the adult Cosette are Kevin Held and Alexandra Bell, respectively. Darcianne Allen plays the adult Eponine, who also loves Marius.
Chip Johnson portrays the Enjolras, the leader of the student movement. Jackson Cook (weekend 1) and Clayton Sooy (weekend 2) take the part of Gavroche, the street urchin who keeps a lookout for the students.
Without rallying support from citizens, the students know they cannot win. As the conflict heats up, Valjean plans to secure passage for himself and Cosette on a ship to America. Marius learns of their plans and decides he is ready to die if he cannot be with Cosette. Eponine manages to protect the lovers from her scheming parents, and the seeds of revolution take root. Choreographer Kathy Miller was able to create the illusion of marching without any of the cast dropping off the stage.
And all that happens in just the 90 minutes of Act I.
Tribute must be paid to the large ensemble, whose members play more than one role and assist the stage crew with set pieces and props.
The men’s chorus is: Kelly Addis, Jeff Cook, Chris Harben, Mike Magnuson, Ethan Mandeville, Michael Sooy, Brandon Allamong, Anthony Currier, Benjamin Frankart, Michael Frankart, Parker Holben, Dylan Knaplund, Rich Plue, Nate Ramsdell, Nick Saxton, Jacob Simon and Steven Simpkins.
The women’s chorus is: Audrey Behm, Kelly Devine, Mika Gibson, Ann Gillig, Heather Jo Harley, Macey Heslet, Jennifer Kahler, Jillian Ledwedge, Isabelle Lewis, Hannah Mathias, Gabrielle Mitchell, Emma Ramsdell, Mackenzie Reinhart, Gabrielle Schmucker, Sydney Schmucker, Myka Scott and Cheyane Thacker.
Ryan Neal and music director Greg Ramsdell on keyboards, Scott Edmondson on bass and Lucas Walter on percussion provide the accompaniment for the production. By the time intermission arrives, they need a break from the constant flow of the challenging score before the start of Act II.
Familiar songs include “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Bring Him Home,” “On My Own” and “Tomorrow Comes.”
Although the technicians and crew are not named individually here, they also deserve kudos for facilitating the continuous evolution of the set and cueing the sound and lighting, with stage direction by Melissa Herrera-Ortiz. A few glitches with microphones and scene changes are likely to be fixed for opening night.
Parents should be aware of a smattering of adult language and some simulated violence if they are going take children to the show. During the sad but hopeful finale, those who have died reappear. Valjean reveals his past to Cosette and sings “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
“Les Miserables” celebrates the triumph of love and justice and the human tenacity to endure “One Day More.”
Tickets for adults are $15 and $10 for students. For reservations and information, visit www.ritzplayers.org or call (419) 448-8544. The theater is at 30 S. Washington St.