Local theater/arts review

My headline is a spoiler of sorts, and I apologize for not keeping the reader in suspense about how this reviewer felt about Northern Michigan University’s production of Les Miserables, but I was up for hours after this show trying to come down from the high produced by this superlative production.

I have seldom been this satisfied by a production. Top to bottom, actors to technical crew, sets to costumes, sound to lightsI cannot recommend this show more highly.

Les Miserables is based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name. It tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to save his starving sister and her family. He is sentenced to 5 years of hard labor, but serves nineteen as a result of his repeated attempts to escape.

He is finally paroled, only to find that the papers he must carry are “the mark of Cain” and he cannot find a place among society. He breaks his parole, steals some silver from a saintly Bishop who, upon Valjean’s arrest, tells the police that he had given the silver to Valjean, but Valjean had forgotten the rest. Valjean, moved by the Bishop’s kindness, vows to change his life. And change it he does.

He becomes a successful businessman, running a factory, becomes the mayor of a town, and saves Cosette, the daughter of a dying worker he has wronged, from the dastardly doings of the Thernardiers.

All the time he is pursued relentlessly by Javert, a police inspector who sees the world in two colors, black and white. Javert is driven solely by the law and vows to follow Valjean to the ends of the earth to bring him back to justice. Valjean and Cosette end up in Paris during the 1832 unrest. There the paths of Valjean, Javert, and the Thernardiers cross again. Cosette meets a student, Marius, and falls in love on sight.

There are many fine performances in this show. I will not have the space to highlight them all, so I must first issue a blanket “Bravo” to each and every member of the cast.

Everyone who is onstage is committed 100 percent of the time to making the scene real and believable for the audience. Lead actor or ensemble member, everyone has reached down into their being and pulled out the very best performance that they are capable of.

Part of that is, I think, due to the halo effect of having a talent like Paul Truckey performing the lead role of Jean Valjean. Having the opportunity to work side by side with this remarkably talented actor has caused everybody on stage to ratchet things up a notch. Paul is no stranger to Les Mis, having played several roles in the Broadway and touring companies of the show. His voice is a marvelous instrument, finely tuned and trained. Just when you think he must have reached the limits of his range, he effortlessly moves onto another plane.

And the best thing I can say about his acting is that it was completely transparent. At no point did I ever feel that Paul was “acting.” He embodied the very soul of Valjean every moment that he was on stage. NMU is justifiably proud of the accomplishments of this distinguished alum and fortunate that he has returned to mentor other students in the craft. I look forward to each and every time that I get to see this man on stage.

Jerimie Newcomb does a fine job as the relentless Javert. He plays the role with the determination and purpose that is vital to the character of Javert. His single minded pursuit of Valjean and his devotion to the law are utterly believable. In particular, the moments where he and Valjean confront each other directly in Fantine’s death scene are thrilling. Fantine is played capably by Erin Resteiner.

Her tragic story of single mother working in a factory to support her daughter, then wrongfully dismissed and forced to sell her hair for a few francs, and finally deciding to sell herself as a prostitute is well served by Ms. Resteiner. Her daughter Cosette is played wonderfully by Sara Parks. Sara has a clear and remarkable soprano voice that shines.

Every note she sings is a joy. The character of Cosette is like a cherished, but caged, bird. Valjean does everything in his power to shield her from the dangers of the world outside and from his past. Sara plays this aspect of her character well. Ethan Bott has another standout voice in this talented cast. He plays Maruis, one of the student idealists leading the uprising in Paris. He sees Cosette once in a crowd, falls instantly in love, and moves heaven and earth to find her.

Again, Mr. Bott’s voice is a crowd pleaser and this is the best performance I’ve seen him give to date. Jesse Morrow plays Eponine, daughter of the Thernardiers, desperately in love with Marius.

She tries repeatedly to get him to see her, to appreciate how much she cares for him, but ultimately gives her life helping Marius in his search for Cosette. Her portrayal of this lovelorn character is touching and heartfelt and her vocals strong. The love triangle/trio, “A Heart Full of Love” is one of the magic moments in the show with Cosette and Marius proclaiming their love for each other with Eponine looking on wistfully. Enjolras, the student leader, is played brilliantly by James Porras II. He has the proper verve and energy to make you believe that he is a strong rebel leader, able to rouse the students to rally to his cause. His vocal skills are well displayed and well used. Bravo. Thernardier is portrayed with a delicious amount of slime by Jacob Laitinen.

Thernardier is the ultimate opportunist, whether cheating the guests at his inn or turning in Valjean to avoid getting arrested, Thernardier always finds a way to profit from a situation. “Master of the House” is a rollicking good time and provides some comic relief in a very serious show. Where Jacob really shines though is in the sewers, gathering the baubles from the dead and not so dead. Sleaze and slime ooze from his pores, and I mean that in the very best way.

His wife and accomplice, Madame Thernardier, is a delight as well. Monica Nordeen jumps into this role and fills it with life and nuance. A very strong character role played by an accomplished actor. She is a great comedic foil and is every bit as sinister as Thernardier is, especially when interacting with the young Cosette and her own daughter Eponine.

Ms. Nordeen’s vocals were great, singing in a richly nuanced character voice that is deceptively hard to do. Kudos. Dave Dagenais, as the saintly Bishop, also shines. Special shout outs to the kids in the cast, Jeremiah Ogawa as Gavroche, Amelia Bishop as Young Cosette, and Delaney Parks as the Young Eponine.

Director Ansley Valentine has done a remarkable job of guiding this cast though this journey. His staging and pacing of this show were first rate. His casting choices, while not the “obvious” choices in some cases, were inspired. He assembled a cast of students, children, and seasoned community members and forged an amazing ensemble that made this show soar. Emily Fitzpatrick did an outstanding job as the music director.

She made the best use of the many talented voices she was given to work with, making this one of the best sounding and sung productions I have watched in a very long time.Vic Holliday’s set design was also inspired. The set performed almost as a cast member and the barricade rising out of the floor is a sight to behold. Kimberly Hegmegee’s lighting design artfully set the mood and tone, complimenting Mr. Holliday’s set choices perfectly. Of special note is the costume design by Shelley Russell.

The sheer volume of period costumes needed in this show is a daunting task. To make it all look this good was a work of epic proportions. Sound design by Dan Zini must also be noted. The balance between the accompaniment and the vocals was spot on and the actors never sounded over-miked.

All in all, a bravura performance from all involved, I am lucky enough to have tickets for both Saturday evening shows. This is one show that I could watch every night it runs. There are a limited number of seats available for the performances on the 21st and 22nd. All of this week’s shows are deservedly sold out.

Tickets are available at all NMU EZTickets outlets or by calling the FRT box office. Do yourself a favor. Buy one of the last few tickets now. You will only regret it if you miss this show.