‘Les Misérables’ at Kensington Arts Theatre

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I dreamed a dream in time gone by that one of Broadway’s most moving stories came to the Kensington Arts Theatre. Life has made the dream I dreamed a reality as Les Misérables opens the end of the season on the stage at the Kensington Town Hall. Directed by Darnell Morris with Musical Direction by Stuart Y. Weich, the timeless story of justice, love, and humanity rings out for all to hear in this epic musical.

Valjean (David Merrill) and Fantine (Michelle Hill). Photo by Ernie Achenbach.
Valjean (David Merrill) and Fantine (Michelle Hill). Photo by Ernie Achenbach.

Traversing 19th Century France, Set Designers Laurie Kimi and the show’s director Darnell Morris create the image of impoverished and war-pending countryside and city alike in their creative designs, and their brilliant concept for the barricades (which I will not divulge) gives the audience a side cross-sectional view into the intense shootout during “The Final Battle.”

Costume Designer Eleanor Dicks (of EBDESIGNS) keeps the impoverished looking distressed and keeps the students looking polished. The burgundy jackets to transition the students from their daily lives into revolutionary mode is a poignant touch, particularly as it echoes back to the themes of their motivational anthem, “Red and Black.” Dicks also creates an extreme distinguishing look between Cosette and Eponine; leaving the latter in filthy street grunge while the former gets the most elegant dresses of satin and lace. Cosette’s wedding dress is exceptionally elegant with a touch of simplistic beauty worked into the lacy patterns.

I do question Director Darnell Morris’ blocking decision of crowding the cast in Thènardier’s tavern so tightly that Thènardier (Gabriel T. Potter) can barely move about among his guests, as  in “Master of the House.” Utilizing the space fully to allow the characters more freedom to move about will enhance the overall quality of the production and important scenes. Morris does, however, manage to block other full scenes with flowing ease, like the march that leads into “Do You Hear The People Sing?” and the act one finale of “One Day More.” One of the best numbers Morris choreographs is “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” with a stunning use of the ‘phantom faces’ and real lit candles.

Also portions of some songs were spoken through with rhythmic delivery rather than being sung as written. This happened primarily during Valjean’s “Prologue,” where a great deal of the character’s struggle and plight is factored in. I was also very noticeable during “Javert’s Soliloquy” where the pivotal turning point of his story was missed entirely because the actor delivered most of that number as spoken text in a voice that was completely washed away by the orchestra during my performance.

While the ensemble is not terribly powerful in group numbers they do have pitch perfect sound. Notable performances include Kaitlin Hitchings during “At the End of the Day” as the taunting factory worker that goads Fantine into trouble. Her shrill characterization flows forth flawlessly in this bit of verse and stands out from the other performances.

Thenardier (Gabriel T. Potter) and Madame Thenardier (Malinda Markland). Photo by Ernie Achenbach.
Thenardier (Gabriel T. Potter) and Madame Thenardier (Malinda Markland). Photo by Ernie Achenbach.

Madame Thènardier (Malinda Markland) also makes herself known with her outrageous baby cry on the streets during “The Robbery” and her hilarious attempt to convince Young Cosette to help swindle Valjean when he comes to collect her. Markland’s silent miming shenanigans in this scene are the funniest moment of her character’s existence.

Taking charge of the rebellion is Enjolras (Michael Van Maele). Bringing strong vocal resonance to “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “Red and Black” Van Maele’s sound carries through to the other students, his enthusiasm for their cause, spreading like a contagion when he attempts to rally the people to call them order and bring them in line. With equal amounts of passion, though in a completely different fashion, Fantine (Michelle Hill) delivers a remarkable rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Singing the number from a place of utter desolation and bitterness, her soul is consumed by the injustice of life. Hill balances the tender moment of blissful memory against the raw torment in this song with divinity. Her emotional breakdown that occurs as her character devolves to the lowest pit is heartbreaking.

Two dueling ingénues, both fighting for the love of one man; Cosette (Anna Fagan) and Eponine (Camryn Shegogue). Fagan delivers tremulous vibrato in her operatic verses of “A Heart Full of Love.” Shegogue demonstrates her ability to belt and sustain emotional notes during her rendition of “On My Own,” one of the show’s most powerful numbers. It is Marius (Harrison Smith) that draws a trio of talent forth in “A Heart Full of Love” harmonies between these three performers twining into beauty.

Smith, as the lovestruck young student, gives the performance of the show, his voice so thoroughly laden with emotions that his character’s story arch inspires tears. Even little lines, like his arduous ones featured in “Red and Black” are bursting with heartfelt pathos. His rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is stunning; a solid blast of torn regret and furious sorrow.

The primary conflict of the show falls to the shoulders of Javert (Paul Tonden) and Jean Valjean (David Merrill). Tonden portrays the character with a uniquely soft approach; though the physical rigidity in his character creates a curious juxtaposition between his emotions and his presence on the stage. Walking in sharp angles, a militaristic character is formed, contrasting sharply with the delicate way in which he approaches his actions with Merrill. Unfortunately, many of Tonden’s lines that were sung during my performance were lost in the quietness of his voice.

Eponine (Camryn Shegogue) and Marius (Harrison Smith) sing "A Little Fall of Rain." Photo by Laurie Kimi.
Eponine (Camryn Shegogue) and Marius (Harrison Smith) sing “A Little Fall of Rain.” Photo by Laurie Kimi.

While both Tonden and Merrill give solid solo performances when they were featured without the other on the stage, when they were together the barbing, biting fight that is written into the lines of the songs was lacking. “The Confrontation” despite lacking this chemistry, was played out in a unique fashion where each performer delivered their half of the duet to the unseen eyes of God more than to each other.

Merrill, as the show’s protagonist, presented Jean Valjean in a highly animated fashion. His body was often moving quite intensely when he sang. His performance of “One Day More” was strong and his rendition of “Bring Him Home” was quite beautiful.

Hear the people sing, because they only sing for three weeks more at Kensington Arts Theatre. Tickets are selling quickly and early reservations are encouraged.

Running Time: Approximately 3 hours, with one intermission.

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Les Misérables plays through May 24, 2014 at Kensington Arts Theatre performed at Kensington Town Hall-3710 Mitchell Street in Kensington, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (206) 888-6642, or purchase them online.

LINKS

Meet The Director and Cast of Kensington Arts Theatre’s ‘Les Misérables’ Part 1: Director Darnell Morris.

Meet The Director and Cast of Kensington Arts Theatre’s ‘Les Misérables’ Part 2: Paul Tonden (Javert).

Meet The Director and Cast of Kensington Arts Theatre’s ‘Les Misérables’ Part 3: David Merrill (Jean Valjean).