A Compact and Compelling Les Mis: Thanks to an Outstanding Jean Valjean, this Great Lakes Theater Production (Mostly) Soars

If one song can make an entire musical a success, then that is the magic that happens when Stephen Mitchell Brown, as Jean Valjean, sings "Bring Him Home" in Les Miserables, now at Great Lakes Theater. His performance of that lovely Act 2 tune is so delicate, so intricate, that one feels transported.

Much as I would like to continue discussing that song for the next several paragraphs (or the whole review), it should be noted that this downsized production of the usually gargantuan Les Mis is generally a triumph. Sure, there are some odd staging choices and a couple off-center portrayals, but this is a show that gets many things absolutely right.

Director Victoria Bussert has necessarily shrunken the cast and contracted the space for this iteration of the Victor Hugo-inspired epic of a Parisian The Fugitive. And while the usual full flood of voices is not quite there in the large vocal numbers, that is more than compensated for by the clarity of many scenes.

Indeed, whenever the Les Mis roadshow rolls into town, there are so many people on stage it's sometimes hard to tell who's singing and what's happening. But in this production, in the intimate confines of the Hanna Theatre, every scene plays out with crisp and clear intent. You actually may understand some moments better than you have before, since you don't have to sort through a crowd of people to discover what's happening.

Of course, the music is the star of this piece, and the GLT company does itself proud in that regard. The eight-member orchestra under the baton of Joel Mercier performs in stellar fashion, supporting a cast full of talented singers.

Standing head and shoulders above everyone is Brown's stocky Valjean. He can blow out the stops in a song such as "Who Am I?" and then etch such fragile phrasing in the next moment that you wish he could keep singing forever.

As Fantine, the doomed mother of Cosette, Jodi Dominick handles "I Dreamed a Dream" with smooth professionalism. The equally star-crossed Eponine, suffering mostly unrequited love for the young revolutionary Marius (a fine-voiced Pedar Benson Bate), is sung by Keri Rene Fuller, and she is exceptional in the second act opener "On My Own." On opening night, Little Cosette was played by Lexi Cowan with a tender vulnerability, turning "Castle on a Cloud" into a real child's made-up song and not an over-polished mini-anthem.

In the other spotlight role, Inspector Javert, Brian Sutherland is a mixed bag. He has the right lean and hungry look of this sociopathic detective, and he hits a number of notes in his songs with the requisite force. But at other times, even in the same number, notes go missing and his voice drops into a whisper. This may improve now that the show has opened and his vocal cords have a bit more time to relax.

As for Javert's suicide, which is often one of the staging highlights of this show, he simply jumps off the back of the upstage platform and then reappears suspended in a frame that appears to represent the cold water of the Seine. But it isn't very engaging visually.

Other strong voices are provided by Kyle Jean Baptiste as student leader Enjolras (he could have made a wonderful Javert) and Tom Ford as the innkeeper Thenardier.

But Ford mugs his way through this juicy role, often flashing his pearly whites and swanning about instead of bothering to fashion this lout into a truly wretched character. He is partnered with Tracee Patterson as Mme. T., and even though they both have proven to be exceptional performers in other shows, here they come together to exhibit almost negative comedic chemistry. As a result, the supposedly scuzzy Thenardiers are not so much disgustingly funny as irritatingly irrelevant.

Also, there a couple signature moments which are oddly muted. In one, spunky little Gavroche (on this night, Colin Wheeler) is shot to death off stage, eliminating that breathtaking scene where the little guy goes limp on the barricade.

And speaking of the barricade, superb set designer Jeff Herrmann has rejected the usual wall of chairs and such and instead arrayed them in a sort of ethereal yard sale motif, from sitting on the ground to suspended in midair. It's an interesting if not entirely understandable arrangement, and it looks odd for some of the barricade detritus to be still hanging there when the scene changes and the wedding reception progresses.

Those nits aside, director Bussert must be praised for creating a production with so much power and subtlety, for that is the take-away from this Les Mis. Just be sure you're wide awake when "Bring Him Home" takes the stage. You won't soon forget it.

Les Miserables

Through Nov. 9 by the Great Lakes Theater company at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 East 14th St., 216-241-6000,


About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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