UTAH FESTIVAL OPERA’S LES MISERABLES IS A POWERFUL PERFOMANCE
By Katie Roundy,
Utah Theatre Bloggers
Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2014
LOGAN — Every musical theatre fan has a list of our favorite shows—the ones they can watch over and over again, and each time experience all the emotion and passion as if for the first time. On my list is Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which is why I jumped at the chance to review the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre’s production at the Ellen Eccles Theatre in Logan.
The well-known musical takes place in 1800’s France and tells the tale of Jean Valjean, a prisoner who served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and for an escape attempt. When an act of mercy saves him from another prison term, he decides to turn his life around, breaking parole in the process. Despite his change of heart, Valjean is always on the run from Inspector Javert, who seeks to put Valjean back behind bars.
It took the Utah Festival Opera 18 years to gain the rights to perform Les Misérables, making it the first opera company in the world to present the show. The company gave a powerful, emotional performance, making the 18 years worth the wait. Each member of the cast had the vocals and presence of a regular production’s lead. While all of the vocal performances were powerful, there was a disconcerting mix of opera and Broadway-style singing that left me confused as to whether this production was meant to be a musical theater production or an opera. Or maybe, as the name of the festival suggests, an eclectic blend of the two. Either way, I found the constant switching back and forth between the styles distracting.
Despite the clash of vocal styles, it’s a shame there weren’t more lead roles in Les Misérables, as this cast could have easily filled them all. But director Valerie Rachelle made every effort to give the talented ensemble time to shine. In some cases, lines that would normally be sung by a lead were given to other members of the cast, giving everyone a moment in the spotlight.
Leading this extremely talented cast was Patrick Miller, who gave a convincing and emotional portrayal of Jean Valjean. Although Miller slid into a few of the high notes, his overall performance was clear and controlled. His voice blended particularly well with Daniel Cilli, who played Inspector Javert. The baritone had a strong presence on stage and created an amazing rendition of “Stars.” Leah Edwards (playing Cosette), and Vanessa Ballam (playing Fantine), both had lovely opera voices, while Tyler Olshansky (playing Eponine), held her ground with a strong musical theatre voice. Stefan Espinosa and Vanessas Schukis, who played Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, gave the performance just the right amount of energy and exaggerated, tipsy body language. There’s not enough room here to list each member of the cast, but suffice it to say that the numbers featuring the entire cast blew me away—and nearly took the roof off the theater in the process.
Set designer Patrick Larson created a fully functional and versatile set. Each piece of the set flipped or rotated to create new scenes quickly and efficiently, such as when the barricade was assembled. I barely even noticed the transformations, as each set change was practically seamless. Costume designer Misti Bradford did a great job building the story of Les Misérables at hand by making sure each costume piece was appropriate to the time period. Uniforms, street clothing, wedding attire, and more were all integral in building the environment of the story.
Although I have seen Les Mis several times, I am more familiar with the school edition, and found the full Broadway version contained lots of surprising extras. I could have done without some of the changes, like the additional narration between scenes, which seemed to prolong the story without adding to it. But I enjoyed other additions, like the extended version of “Beggars at the Feast” and the brawl between Javert and Jean Valjean after Fantine’s death.
This show really came down to personal preference. Although I prefer musical theater-style to opera-style in a musical theater production, I was still impressed with this rendition. Without question, the company gave an energetic, powerful performance to be proud of.