MARVELOUS ‘LES MISERABLES’ LEADS UFOMT SEASON
By Jay Wamsley,
Published: Saturday, July 19, 2014
It’s easy to see which of the four offerings of the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre season is considered the blockbuster, the one to see. Check out the schedule: “The Student Prince” is set for five showings, and “Vanessa” is scheduled for four. “Oklahoma!” will be staged eight times in the 30-day summer calendar of the UFOMT.
But “Les Miserables,” perhaps the most recognizable of the four major productions, is set for 14 performances — and for good reason. Not only is “Les Miserables” a story known to a wide range of potential patrons, it also is far and away the premier presentation of this UFOMT season — and one of the top-drawer productions in the company’s 22 years.
Even professional nit-pickers would have an extremely hard time finding fault with this nearly perfect “Les Miserables.” It is as close to flawless in both production and performances as could be witnessed. In fact, the UFOMT company is, according to founder Michael Ballam, the first opera company in the United States to be granted permission to perform the famed musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, which is based on the time-honored novel by Victor Hugo. And that opportunity has not been wasted.
Considerable credit goes to director Valerie Rachelle and conductor Karen Keltner for their inspired and almost relentless pacing of the production. This staging of a very involved production moves quickly and actively, and passions are high in both movements and voice by all involved. The powerful opening scene is an attention-getter, and the attention of the audience is riveted to the Ellen Eccles Stage from that point on.
Keltner never lets the score rest, bouncing and urging the orchestra to put passion into their pieces. Scenes meld from one to the next so precisely and quickly that a usually clap-happy Cache Valley audience could not keep up between numbers, opting to hold their applause on opening night to reward extra-big moments, of which there were plenty. Set changes were fascinatingly efficient, and set designs were simple enough to leave much to the imaginations of audience members.
Some memorable performances include Wes Mason as Bishop Myriel, whose rich voice and perfect projection reminded Jean Valjean that his soul had been purchased. Stefan Espinosa and Vanessa Schukis are scene-stealing stars as the Thenardiers, and that couple’s performance — and leading of a busy ensemble — of the familiar “Master of the House” is very memorable. As Inspector Javert, Daniel Cilli becomes master of the low register, and his strong bass and equally strong performance end up making him, ironically, a crowd favorite.
Before the season started, Ballam noted that he had hoped and was announced to be taking on the role of Jean Valjean. However, as the 2014 season approached, he said, “We have been presented with an extraordinary opportunity to have a world-class performer step into the role … that will enthrall us all.” That performer ended up being Patrick Miller, winner of a Grammy Award and a performer with the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Miller was riveting and powerful and moved through the several stages of Valjean’s life and dilemmas with a combination of ease and power, proving Ballam correct.
It should be noted that Tyler Olshansky as Eponine is a memorable cog in this cast. Olshansky sings with what appears to be ease, never straining to hit notes but never missing, demonstrating a voice that feels soft around the edges and that patrons could listen to for much longer than what was called for by her character’s stage time.
Samuel Barber’s American opera “Vanessa”” premiered in 1958 and is not as well-known to audiences as the season’s other offerings. While the individual performances opening night were all quite strong, the production as a whole remained unremarkable and presented little to lift and excite the audience.
Vanessa (Beverly O’Regan Thiele) and Erika (Alice-Anne M. Light) do a good job building anticipation in early scenes as Vanessa waits for her lover to return after 20 years away. Light is especially gentle of voice and easy to listen to, never approaching harsh or shrill tones in her solos. Richard Zuch as the Doctor, a family friend, provides a welcome visit to the bass clef and charms the audience with a little dance number early in the production.
Act II provides a bit more passion and pacing for all involved and even provides a duet (there are no ensemble numbers in “Vanessa,” and it seems the number of pieces with combined voices can be counted on one or two fingers). Big or memorable numbers are not part of the mix in “Vanessa.”
Andrew Bidlack as Anatol is perfectly smarmy as he burns his two-ended candle. Bidlack provided a conniving edge to his character, and his voice was strong and as memorable as “Vanessa” could provide.
All involved with the well-known Rodgers and Hammerstein musical seem to be having fun and present it with ease. As Curly McLain, Wes Mason sings effortlessly and with a comfortable richness. His duet — “People Will Say We’re in Love” — with Laurey Williams (Leah Edwards) is an excellent performance by both. Will Parker (played by Bray Wilkins) gets to ham it up a bit and provides the perfect introduction into the first big dance number as the second scene opens.
As traveling peddler Ali Hakim, Stefan Espinosa maintains his reputation as a scene-stealer. Espinosa leads an ensemble of men’s voices expertly as the group moans about being hen-pecked husbands unable to muster up a revolution.
As Jud Fry, the dark cloud on the horizon of this little corner of the Oklahoma territory, the durable Kevin Nakatani has the brooding look and uncertain presence down perfectly.
Conductor Karen Keltner gives a light, airy touch to the familiar score all night, bouncy but not overbearing. A perfect example is her lead into a dream and dance sequence with a sextet of characters on stage. The dream sequence, presented as part of Laurey’s elixir-induced haze, then goes on for an extended time — perhaps 10 minutes — and is expertly choreographed.
Other highlights included a rousing ensemble number to open the second act (“The Farmer and the Cowman”), and Espinosa again gets an opportunity to play up his several talents, including facial expressions and dancing. The finale is also a rousing ensemble number and was just what everyone in the audience wanted — a real boot-tapper.
“The Student Prince”
On opening night of the well-known operetta “The Student Prince,” patrons were likely struck by two obvious things early on: First, there was a masterfully painted, almost 3-D set that was a delightful backdrop; second, it was easy to note that Andrew Bidlack (appearing as the lead, Prince Karl Franz) has the remarkable ability to complement every actor with whom he sings. All of Bidlack’s duets and chorus numbers are strong because he leads them and lifts others. And all the ensembles in “The Student Prince,” with or without Bidlack, are finely tuned. Costuming is noteworthy, with Kathie (Emma-Grace Dunbar) standing out in her especially highlighted dresses.
Led by conductor Barbara Day Turner, the score has a fluid, waltzlike quality that suits Turner’s flowing style perfectly. While the dilemmas presented by “The Student Prince” are not always easy on the heart, the always-present score by Sigmund Romberg is very easy to listen to.
For those attending all the UFOMT productions, “The Student Prince” becomes a bit of a study in contrasts and strong character acting. Nakatani, for example, so depressing in “Oklahoma!,” is a comic relief in “The Student Prince,” along with sidekick Duchess Vanessa Schukis. Bidlack also here takes on the role of hero after his character showed less-than-admirable qualities in “Vanessa.”
As it is supposed to, “The Student Prince” holds audiences to the final moment as all want to see resolutions to the dilemmas the plot presents.