I’ve seen a lot of shows in Cincinnati over the last couple of years. A lot. Almost 50 last year alone and about 20 so in first two months of 2014.
I say this without hesitation – CCM’s Les Miserables just might be the greatest production I’ve ever seen. The costumes, the sound, the lighting, the orchestra . . . and oh my the singing! I’ve got a whole lot to say about this show.
Let’s start with some truth; I’ve never seen Les Miserables. Never ever. I was familiar with the story and had read up a little about the show when both CCM and Wright State announced they were producing it in their seasons this year. But I try to stay away from shows that are done “opera-style.” I prefer my musicals to not be sung-through but for there to be a break in the music. And I don’t think that Les Mis will ever ben in my top 10 favorite Broadway musicals. I appreciate it for what it is – some call it the mother of all musicals. But its not something I’d go out of my way to see normally.
So, given my lack of experience, I found the cheat-sheet in the program most helpful in describing the plot as the show progressed. I followed it well, but the confirmation that what I thought was happening really was proved most helpful.
I cannot imagine any production being sung any better than this version. Every note, every phrase, every thing about the vocals in this show are pitch-perfect. From the outset, Julian Decker confirms what I’d been promised about him. There aren’t enough adjectives of praise to describe his singing but also his performance. I felt Valjean’s pain and internal torment through his facial expressions and body language. Contrasted, Noah Ricketts has the unenviable role of playing Inspector Javert, who has to sing a lot of words quickly and do so almost stoically. He was consistent, proficient, and did just fine with a less flashy role.
Valjean is paroled and finds kindness and grace from “The Bishop of Digne,” played and sung beautifully by character actor Dallas Padoven. Padoven, who plays everything from Bishop to a Pimp to Prisoner to Army Captain impressed with his posture, body language, and some impressive wigs, costumes, and makeup to distinguish each character from the other. Again, another great vocal performance from this CCM junior baritone.
Fast forward and now Valjean is hiding out as the mayor of a small town where he also owns a factory. Hannah Zazzaro was engaging (and has one of the best voices at CCM) in her catty and vicious assault on the character of “Fantine.” Fantine is played by Kimber Sprawl who has gone from a naturally gifted performer to a mature, emotional actress and singer. Her soaring rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” nearly brought me to my feet. Fantine is a desperate woman, resorting to whatever she must do in order to care for her child and Sprawl expressed that as well as it could be.
Valjean feels sorry for Fantine once he realizes he did not do all he could to help her when she worked in his factory. She dies . . . and he promises to care for her young daughter, Cosette. The young actress playing Cosette – I think it was Lili Shires, however the role was double cast and I didn’t look at the sign outside – was amazing, too. Often times the youngsters in a show like this are just OK but all the children are marvelous in this production. I especially enjoyed the work of Jonah Sorscher as “Gavroche.”
At this point, I was enjoying the show a lot . . . and then the Thenardiers’ showed up.
I’ve been a Matthew Hill fan since I saw him as William Barfee in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” on the Showboat Majestic. Every time he’s on stage, I find a new side of him to fall in love with. And every time I see him I think well he’s figured out a new way to play “Matt Hill.” But as Thenardier – well, I didn’t see Matt Hill anymore. I saw a marvelously devilish performance, nuanced yet big, subtle yet over the top. He’s never been better. And matched up with comedic genius Emily Schexnaydre, this is an unstoppable couple. I wrote down “EYES!!!” next to Emily’s name and her expressiveness shines through all the makeup and gaudy costuming. Both of these seniors are destined for stardom.
Valjean adopts Cosette and she grows up into the stunning soprano Stephanie J. Park. Her sweet and powerful vibrato is incredible and brought a smile to my face, especially when sung in harmony with Eric Geil’s “Marius.” Geil’s tenor is as good as it gets and it was good to see that his acting skill is growing to match his singing. He and Ben Biggers (“Enjolras”) lead the rebellion. Biggers has a big voice and I was equally impressed with his vocal prowess as I was anyone in the cast.
I have to mention the work of Lawson Young as “Eponine.” When she sang the classic “On My Own” the whole theatre shook with her belt. Again, another incredible vocal performance here. I also want to recognize the ensemble work of Nathaniel Irvin, Kameron Richardson, Kaela O’Connor, Katie Wesler, Sarah Bishop, Tom Meglio, John McGill, Nick Pleaccio, Alison Bagli, and so many others. It truly took everyone working towards the whole of the show to pull this off. The musical direction of Steve Goers was impeccable and it was nice to know the talented Jacob Yates was down in that pit along with my favorite guitarist in town, Brad Myers. Aubrey Berg had the unenviable task of taking this enormous cast and making sure they were staged properly, with everyone having their moment to shine and not step on each other. Having a second set of eyes (senior student and assistant director Connor Deane) was likely invaluable.
I really can’t say enough good things. This cast – and the crew – and the staff of UC-CCM should be very proud of this amazing production of Les Miserables. Tickets are likely sold out but you should run to the box office and stand in line hoping that someone doesn’t claim their ticket so you can see this remarkable show. I’ll be back on Sunday for their closing performance and to see Blaine Krauss as Valjean and Colin Kessler as Javert. What an epic way for some of these seniors to end their CCM journeys.
LES MISERABLES runs through March 9th at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. Tickets – if there are any left – are available here. Photos by Mark Lyons.