I’ve been fortunate enough to review many of Riverside Center Dinner Theater’s productions over the past few years, and can tell you that for a long time now, something magnificent has been brewing. Producer Rollin E. Wehman traditionally greets the audience before every show, and had been hinting about this thrilling production over the past year, telling the audiences, “I can’t tell you the name yet, but I can tell you that it rhymes with “Hey Liz.” When an excited theatergoer once shouted out, Les Mis! Wehman gave a small grin before continuing on with his pre-show announcements.
It’s finally here! Riverside Center Dinner Theater proudly presents the long-awaited and highly anticipated production of Les Misérables – the world-famous popular Tony Award-winning musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo. It has music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer, and orchestrations by John Cameron.
An international powerhouse in incredibly high demand, Riverside Center is deservingly one of a select group of professional venues granted with a 2013 license for this beloved musical. This, mes amis, is the big kahuna for musical theater fans, and Riverside Center Dinner Theater delivers a magnificent production.
While Riverside Center provides the Fredericksburg area with consistent, Broadway-quality entertainment Les Misérables is not just “another show” for them. Director Patrick A’Hearn was a member of the original Broadway cast of Les Mis, and brings with him not only intimate knowledge of the grand epic itself (including the original blocking and positioning, which is replicated in this production)—but also a great love and respect for it, which reverberates throughout every aspect of this show. The passion for this production is shared throughout the cast and crew, a collective reverence which A’Hearn refers to as a “labor of love.”
Scenic Designer Brian C. Barker captures the desperation of lower-class 18th Century France with a main background consisting of cumbersome wooden beams and worn, rickety shutters. Large set pieces are rolled on and offstage throughout the show, like bar tables, an elegant front gate, and most ambitiously, a large barricade constructed out of discarded furniture and other materials. The stage also has a revolving center, which allows the audience to view multiple angles of the scenes and action. Technical Director Phil Carlucci and Lighting Designer Nicky Mahon provide a solid framework for the actors to work with, consisting of emotional colors streaking through a hazy mist, poignant spotlights, and manipulative shadow work.
Following the life of Jean Valjean (David Michael Felty) after serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, the multi-layered plot of Les Misérables takes the audience through years of hardship and turmoil, as a policeman Javert (Thomas Adrian Simpson) obsesses with hunting Valjean down after breaking his parole.
By now, Valjean has become a successful mayor and factory owner, and takes no notice as his workers turn on a young woman named Fantine (Erin Miele Huss) and kick her out onto the street. Unemployed and indebted to the innkeepers housing her young daughter, a desperate Fantine spirals into a life of prostitution, sharing her heartache in the beautifully sad “I Dreamed a Dream.” Discovering Fantine’s plight far too late, a guilt-ridden Valjean promises to raise her daughter as his own as he comforts her on her death bed.
Unbeknownst to Fantine, the innkeepers entrusted with her daughter treat the girl very poorly, seen in the hauntingly sweet song “Castle on a Cloud,” sung by Alexa Norbeck as the child Cosette. The innkeepers Thénardier (Bill Upshaw) and his wife Madame Thénardier (Carol Hagy) are greedy and deceitful, singing about their schemes in “Master of the House.” By the time Valjean comes to claim her, the neglected child is dirty and sad, and is taken into his custody with the promise of a loving father and happy childhood.
Years later, Valjean and Cosette, now a beautiful young woman (Whiteney Hollis as the grown Cosette), find themselves amidst a political upheaval in Paris led by a group of young students who sympathize with the lower class, shown in the rousing number “Red and Black.” Amongst them is a young man named Marius (David Pope) who falls in love with Cosette at first glance, to the dismay of his admirer Eponine (Caitlin Shea) who sings of her unrequited love in the heartbreaking song “On My Own.” As the tension progresses, a barricade is built, and a series of attacks threaten the lives of everyone involved. Javert and Valjean again come face-to-face with a stunning result. Can hope and love somehow prevail in a tale so deeply rooted in the themes of conflict, struggle and loss?
The ensemble works together seamlessly, whether crawling over one-another with animalistic desperation, or slow-marching behind a sheer curtain. And their singing is stupendous. Tenor David Michael Felty gives a masterful performance in the lead role of Jean Valjean, showcasing strong, commanding vocals, especially in “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home.” Thomas Adrian Simpson provides a powerful “Stars” and his performance of “Soliloquy (Javert’s Suicide)” is spine-tingling. Erin Miele Huss provides a heart-wrenching ‘I Dreamed a Dream.” Caitlin Shea delivers an emotional and crowd-pleasing rendition of “On My Own,” and David Pope’s “Empty Chairs an Empty Tables” is filled with regret and sadness. Joshua Otten is a feisty Gavroche. The ensemble’s voices and harmonies are flawless and takes center stage during “One Day More,” which closes the first act.
Much-needed comedic relief is provided by Bill Upshaw and Carol Hagy as the blumbering innkeepers – The Thénardiers – who attempt to claw their way up the social ladder, and their rendition of “Master of the House” was a hilarious crowd-pleaser. Director Patrick A’Hearn and Musical Director Jason J. Michael receive passionate and vocally astounding performances from each and every member of its talented cast.
There are dozens of productions of Les Misérables in production right now, in rehearsals, and in the planning stages, but it will be very difficult for any of them to match the brilliance that is now on the stage at Riverside Center Dinner Theater. This is a Les Misérables people will be talking about for years to come.
Running Time: Approximately three hours, including one 15-minute intermission.