THEATER REVIEW: Masterful pit, strong voices conquer Les Mis score

Les Misérables/ The Two of Us Productions/ Taconic Hills Performing Arts Center

THE MUSIC OF “LES MISÉRABLES” is cheap. It is cheap, cheap, cheap. It has always been cheap. This is in spite of awards and endless productions, a movie, and good work by singer/actors and orchestras. As Noel Coward famously said, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”

The piece shamelessly milks anthems and jerks tears, and Victor Hugo is probably dizzy in his grave from the compression of his story.

I attribute the musical’s outlandish success to a whole generation’s discovery: that big, rangy, expressive voices are exciting; and that there is something other than a guitar (it’s called an orchestra), which sounds rather interesting and is capable of producing that much-sought-after biological response.

However, you’ve gotta love the grit and gusto of The Two of Us. Producing this humungous, tired musical on a limited budget with mostly non-pros is ambitious. Stephen Sanborn, director/conductor, and Constance Lopez, actor/assistant director, have not hesitated.

Although the company has other virtues, its big claim to your attention is that its musicals appear with a full, live orchestra.

In the past, this has sometimes been a questionable asset. Now, there is news! Sanborn’s orchestra has leapt forward. It has never been more in-tune, more responsive to the baton, sweeter or more passionate. It exhibits a healthy brass section, a creamy-toned oboe, a folksy tuba, a solid percussion section (featuring an excellent if over-worked timpanist), and two keyboards supplying important glue. Is it new personnel? Is it orchestrations? Is it more rehearsal time? I don’t pretend to know; but it’s a good thing, whatever it is. (It is not the score.)

In this production, crucial to the show’s life, is the amazing Ken Kasch as Jean Valjean. He has voice. (From the most full-throated forte to the most delicate pianissimo, this voice works, yet he never merely shows it off. It is always an instrument of character). He has energy and the full palette of human feeling; he acts.

There are other good voices as well. Males in particular. The big, rich sound of Edward Anthony as Javert is especially surprising in its very smooth line coupled with utterly intelligible lyrics. Anthony’s inspector is a strong force against Kasch’s Valjean. Together they are the show.

Dan Leinung’s Marius is serviceable if not thrilling. As Fantine, Constance Lopez offers her stunning face and extraordinary actors’ focus–along with her over-chested high notes. Tara K. Young is an attractive adult Cosette, even though she is forced to hide her natural soubrette quality, and even though her basically good singing voice follows the regrettable current fad. (An ingénue must sound like a kindergartner with serious sinus problems. Baby-sing!) Betsy Rees is a rather dull Éponine. Emily Allen is an appealing young Cosette (Saturday performance. The role is shared.), and Madison Seipp brings the urchin Gavroche to believable life—and death.

The staging of big groups is too static. The set is minimal and simply dreary when the show would seem to demand an enticing, gorgeous, stagy Paris dreariness. (A budget issue, perhaps.) Lights function well except for the lack of atmosphere as Valjean drags Marius’ body through the streets/sewers. Javert’s tumble off the bridge into the Seine is a deeply satisfying moment of stagecraft.

If you are unfamiliar with the performance venue (Taconic Hills High School in Craryville), you may need to pray for bread crumbs to find your way into the theater.

The show is long. Except for the spiffed-up orchestra and certain actor/singers, it could never be short enough for me.

“Les Misérables” runs through June 15. Buy tickets online at The Two Of Us Productions.

Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” will be mounted by this company in October. Watch for it. Lopez and Sanborn already know “It Takes Two.”

 

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