One show more! Another theatre another production of the epic musical Les Misérables. It is the summer of revolution and no theatre wishes to be left behind in this magnificent pursuit of the musical theatre dream show. The Montgomery College Summer Dinner Theatre is no exception to that dream as they mount their barricade in the month of July. Directed and Choreographed by Pauline S. Grossman with Musical Direction by N. Thomas Pedersen, this production that features an array of talented college-age students sheds new light on burgeoning theatrical youths cutting their chops on one of the most intense and difficult musicals in performance history.
Scenic Designer Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden has brilliant, outside-the-box notions for the cumbersome sets of the show. Refusing to let the barricade become a wreckage of various assembled Ikea furnishings, McFadden sticks to traditional wooden shutters and pieces mounted to the three moving two-tiered fixtures that are used in repetition throughout the performance. These three rotating platforms each create an entryway— be it the gate to Rue Plumet, the recess to the bishop’s abbey or the many doors of the factory, Thènardier’s Inn, and other locations— their use is impressive and inventive. McFadden his lined the backdrop of the stage with doors and window shutters as well, creating this concept that another story begins every time a new door is opened.
With the moving platforms that can easily spin to create the interior of a building juxtaposed against the filthy streets of impoverished Paris, McFadden highlights depth in subtle moments that would otherwise be ordinary. The prime example of this is when Fantine is thrown from the factory at the conclusion of “At the End of the Day.” Seeing her literally spun through the rotating platform and out the door is harsh and shocking, giving her that much more to go on for the start of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin helps enhance these superbly crafted scenic elements with her subtle use of dark lighting and shadow. The opening sequence of the chain gang is striking as the convicts are revealed solely in shadow-lit back light until they sing their first words of the song. Joslin uses an impressive lighting technique for “Javert’s Soliloquy” as well; an homage to the method in which this bridge scene was handled in the original production.
Killer costumes are essential for this production and outfitting an ensemble of 40 is no small feat. Costume Designer Peter Zakutansky rises to the occasion, with extra special care as the actors wait tables with dinner service in full costume before the show starts. The attention to detail in Zakutansky’s design work is astonishing. Little things like the threadbare jacket belonging to Lesgles (Niko Stamos) which is a nod to details of the book, make the production that much more intimate. Zakutansky brings the right blend of distressing and authentic styles of the time for the street scenes, even the army uniforms look sharp and of a high caliber. It’s Madame Thènardier’s dress that really takes the cake; a hideous buttercup yellow ball gown with a hoop skirt bigger than her outlandish personality for the wedding scene— an absolute comic scream just to look at.
Musical Director N. Thomas Pedersen is responsible for the surefire sound that rises up from the ensemble throughout the performance. Numbers like “One Day More” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” are delivered with robust sound all around, hearty performance numbers that make the production enjoyable. Pedersen even finds a way to make the harmonies from “A Heart Full of Love” stand out in a pleasing fashion— a trick most difficult for every musical director.
Director Pauline S. Grossman populates the production with an assortment of interesting choices, including encouraging British accents for every person on the stage (perhaps as a tribute to the original West End production). At times, this becomes distracting as the accents sound forced and in places just sound extremely awkward, especially when Enjolras shouts at the top of his lungs in his British accent “Viva La France!”
Grossman’s choreography, however, is tight and her use of the space is well executed, never resulting in overcrowding. Her approach to handling “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is a fine example of knowing that less is often more, for never once do the ‘ghosts’ of the students of the barricade make a clunky or otherwise unseemly entrance during Marius’ solo.
Grossman does make some fascinating choices— like casting Grant Saunders as Thènardier as the young actor is almost seven feet tall. This creates a hysterical sight gag for “Master of the House” as Saunders is able to take two or three sweeping strides across the stage and clear the entire inn in the process. Casting the much shorter Jade Arwen as Madame Thènardier furthers the humor of the sight gag and really carves out a niche for their physical comedy. Grossman has several nods throughout the performance to other versions of Les Miserables— including the opening scene with the hauling of the chains as a tribute to the recent film. One of the most impressive little details included in Grossman’s production is that every member of the chain gang has a visible number branded upon their chest, not just Jean Valjean.
The talent captured in this production is impressive, with all of the performers being students, many of whom are just getting acting and performing underway as a part of their upcoming careers. Minor characters like Grantaire (Gabriel Macedo— also doubling as Bamatabois) ensure that their voices are heard. Macedo is given solo lines during nearly every student number, especially “Drink With Me” and his voice is powerfully divine. Doubling as Bamatabois, his villainy shows through in a pernicious fashion, truly laving Fantine abused.
The ingénue trio featuring Marius (Tizian D’Affuso) Cosette (Victoria Meyers) and Eponine (Chani Wereley) are a group of three beautiful voices. D’Affuso finds real emotional connections to the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” while Meyers becomes the epitome of the vapid goose-witted ingénue, living completely in her own little childish bubble. “A Heart Full of Love” grows to be a rather serene trio of sound with these three behind the song.
Fantine (Emily Madden) delivers a sensational rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” where each moment is expressed as a new discovery. Madden’s approach to the song is authentic; living in every line of what she is singing rather than singing the song for its beauty. Madden tells a story with her character, and her attack on the vicious Factory Girl (Simone Lewis) in an attempt to retrieve her letter back is believable and effective so that the ensuing fight makes sense. Her voice is stellar, particularly for “The Finale” and her angelic presence at that time creates a tranquil bliss that diffuses into the ether.
Two strikingly talented young men take on the leading roles in this enormous performance. Renwick Anson Paige II as Javert and JP Sisneros as Jean Valjean make this production truly engaging. Paige brings a rigorously rigid character to life as Javert, particularly when he spits out his disgust at the students during the attacks on the barricade. His solo “Stars” is filled with pious sentiment and a pulsating sense of self-righteous truth that hones in on the justice-driven fire that feeds his character. His pursuit of Valjean is unyielding and the conclusion to “The Confrontation” between them is stellar.
Sisneros gives one of the most talented Jean Valjean performances for a man his age. Connecting emotionally with the character for songs like “Who Am I?” and “One Day More” the feelings of a man conflicted come roaring through his song. “Bring Him Home” is a vocal godsend and brings the audience to tears.
Exceptional young talent is sparking a revolution of its own at Montgomery College Summer Dinner Theatre this season, and should not be missed.
Running Time: 3 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.
Les Misérables plays through July 27, 2014 at the Montgomery College Summer Dinner Theatre in the Performing Arts Theatre Building of the Montgomery College’s Rockville campus— 51 Mannakee Street in Rockville, MD. For tickets call the box office at 240-567-7676 or purchase them online.