If the Timber Lake Playhouse's production of Les Misérables is the only experience some theatre-goers will have with Alain Boublil's and Claude-Michel Schönberg's much-loved musical, I think that would be more than okay. Director Matthew Teague Miller and his cast and crew not only do justice to the material, but present it in a memorable way that, for me, actually improves on the long-running Broadway version. This is an exceptional production, boasting fantastic performances and exquisite imagery.
While Miller clearly draws inspiration from Trevor Nunn's and John Caird's original direction, his staging remains unique, feeling both familiar and fresh. During Saturday's matinée performance, I was particularly fascinated with Miller's use of the rotating stage. Miller employs the spinning floor masterfully as he has his actors walk in place on it while the stage brings new sets to them, such as when Lily Leding's young Cosette is seen scrubbing the floor and then moves to her foster parents' inn. More subtly, in the scene in which Jean Valjean (Jason Kraack) first dines with the Bishop of Digne (Sean Knight), Kraack sits at the end of the table, which is positioned at house right, perpendicular to the audience. As he sings, though, the stage slowly spins until Valjean, the Bishop, and a nun (Analisha Santini) are to the left side of the stage, with the table now parallel to the audience. There's a movie quality to this moment, as if Miller was shifting camera angles to give the viewer a different perspective.
Even more subtle is the imagery created during the young Cosette's initial appearance. As the endearing Leding begins the song "Castle on a Cloud," she's set in a sort of kneeling position similar to, and in the same spot as, Fantine (Lexie Plath) at the start of her "I Dreamed a Dream" solo. Given their mother-daughter relationship, this simple positioning is particularly beautiful, as the baton of care, held by Valjean, is passed from Fantine to Cosette.
Kraack shines as Valjean, from his beleaguered, frustrated, defiant beginnings as a newly freed prisoner, to his graceful, loving nature following the gift of two silver candlesticks. With power, personality, and emotion in his more-than-pleasing vocals, Kraack carries the story from beginning to end, proving a capable, relatable catalyst for subplots along the way. In contrast, John B. Leen forsakes most emotions as a stern, morally condescending Javert, the inspector who hunts Valjean following the convict's release. Ever the merciless officer, Leen really won me over during the scene in which Javert's identity is revealed to the revolutionary fighters and he's held captive behind their barricade. Leen, when meeting eyes with the others, returns their gaze with a look of brave defiance. When out of their focus, however, Leen's Javert shows a growing fear for his life as he awaits his fate.
The favorites in most productions of Les Mis are the Thénardiers, and Matt Webb and the double-cast Santini are so delicious in the roles that I wished for a spin-off, with the actors portraying the innkeepers in their comically conniving encounters with various patrons. While playing Thénardier, Webb throws in bits of business such as picking his nose and wiping his finger in the meat grinder while singing the line "Filling up the sausages with this and that." As for Santini's Madame Thénardier, she's less a headstrong woman than one burdened with the task of actually running things at their inn while her husband "supervises." Together, she and Webb portray the type of couple that exchanges barbs playfully, as though that's natural to their relationship, rather than as a couple that hates each other but remains married anyway, and they left me wanting more of them.
It's Nathan Goodrich's Marius, however, that I truly fell in love with. Adorable and charming, this fine actor lends his Marius an abundant air of boyish eagerness onset by puppy love. His infatuation at first site of Caroline Murrah's Cosette is believable for both his passion and his small touches, such as the way his Marius gently, sweetly takes Valjean's hand when Valjean reveals his sordid past. Goodrich is Marius, and this Marius will likely, forever, be the truest Marius to me.
So, too, will Erica Stephan's Éponine stick out in my mind for the way she layers this Thénardier daughter with an outer shell of strength and independence covering a heart that's constantly broken by Marius' unawareness of her feelings, while remaining ever hopeful that he'll someday return her love. It's also a delight to see Cody Jolly disappear into his pimp character during the "Lovely Ladies" scene. Jolly wears a cool air of superiority as this lord of the ladies of the night, adding a growl to his voice so that the usually animated actor is virtually unrecognizable in this role. Gabriel Brown also offers a persuasive Enjolras buoyed by his sense of conviction, while Cecelia Ryan's Gavroche leans more toward innocent and unassuming than determined.
Lighting designer James Kolditz's work is also remarkable, particularly his abundant use of overhead spotlights that create a glow around particular actors, but that also cast shadows across their faces, adding mystery, misery, or uncertainty when appropriate. (His projections of words to define place and passage of time, however, are placed too close to the front of the stage, requiring patrons to crane their necks to read them over the tops of the heads in front of them.) Musical director Cindy Blanc's impressive musicians are also a welcome touch. Given Miller's nuanced treatment of the material and the polish with which it's executed, the Timber Lake Playhouse's Les Misérables sets the bar incredibly high for future productions, and it will be difficult for me not to hold other theatrical companies to the standards set by this notable accomplishment.
Les Misérables runs at the Timber Lake Playhouse (8215 Black Oak Road, Mt. Carroll) through August 10, and more information and tickets are available by calling (814)244-2035 or visiting TimberLakePlayhouse.org.