Review: ‘Les Misérables: School Edition’ at Ovations Theatre

At a time when we are marching for our rights, a show like Les Misérables feels only too appropriate. If you don’t hear the people sing, then you have cotton in your ears. The outstanding senior company at Ovations Theatre kicked off their 2018-2019 season with a bang. Artistic Director Darnell Patrick Morris directed their production of Les Mis with associate direction by Theresa Cunningham. This production has two casts – the Red Cast and the Blue Cast, and the performance I saw was of the Red Cast.

The cast of Ovations Theatre's Les Misérables: School Edition. Photo by Lock & Company.
The cast of Ovations Theatre’s Les Misérables: School Edition. Photo by Lock & Company.

This production was an absolute achievement. Mayumi Griffie deserves special praise as the music director, along with Matthew Dohm, her associate music director. The spoken words in Les Mis are few, and Ovations had the privilege and the challenge of a live orchestra. It makes a world of difference for the audience to have all of those instruments live. The stars of the pit were Dan Chester and Chip Racster on trumpet. I hadn’t realized how much horn there was in this show, but their tone was clear and beautiful every time.

The ensemble as a whole deserves much praise. Although there were occasional hesitation and volume issues, they had full energy and sound. Their swift movements helped change scenes quickly and keep the show moving. They filled the stage with their own individual personalities and interactions with each other to create complete, dynamic scenes. Within the ensemble, the soloists sang out proudly with strong voices. One standout voice was Madelyn Fox, a senior, as Grantaire. She showed attitude, dynamic emotions, and an amazing voice that projected over the orchestra.

Les Mis is a show with iconic lead roles and songs. Musical theatre fans across the world can recite every actor who has ever played Jean Valjean and their favorite rendition of “On My Own.” This is an added challenge when performing this show, but the leads in this production did not disappoint. Molly Herson as Eponine had a voice straight off a cast recording. Jonah Schwartz had wonderful excitement and passion as Marius. His onstage ladylove, Cosette, played by Peyton Aronow, had a voice as sweet and as clear as a bell. The role of Fantine is small in time, but large in impact. Meghan Carey showed great emotional and vocal maturity in her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.” It was beautifully felt and not at all overdone.

Sam Salem as the persistent Inspector Javert delivered his part with full confidence and conviction, but also made sure to bring the different emotional notes that a complex character like Javert requires. I appreciated how Salem allowed his emotions to color his voice, giving his singing added texture. David Klos as Enjolras packed a punch! No production of Les Mis would be possible without a strong Jean Valjean at the helm, and Ian Coursey delivered on that consistently throughout the performance. The first note I wrote down was, “wow.” His delicate high notes and supported lower tones gave Coursey’s numerous solos emotional depth and connection. Coursey also brought a good deal of physicality to the role. Nearing the end of the play, when much time had passed, you could see he had aged simply by the altered way he walked onto the stage for a new scene.

The cast of Ovations Theatre's Les Misérables: School Edition. Photo by Lock & Company.
The cast of Ovations Theatre’s Les Misérables: School Edition. Photo by Lock & Company.

The costumes, designed by Darnell Morris, were astounding. The way the costumes depicted each character told a story all on their own. The way Cosette’s dress swayed, I could have watched her move across the stage for twenty minutes. The different pieces brought the large cast together as an ensemble quite nicely. Matt Tillett’s lighting design was a lovely feature of the production. Scenes and moments were set with careful, well-chosen lighting that was subtle when needed, but bold to make a point, too. The set design by James Raymond truly surprised me. The buildings framing the stage were so beautifully detailed and specific and were accentuated by giant scaffolds rolled on and off for the barricade scenes.

It is tempting to say this production was impressive for youth theatre. But that is untrue and condescending. These artists worked hard, and deserve the applause for that hard work.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

Running Time: Two and a half hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Les Misérables played through December 2nd, 2018, at the Kreeger Auditorium at the JCC of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Rd, in Rockville, MD. For information about future Ovations Theatre shows, go online.