I'm on record stating that I was "Les Mis-ed out" after seeing three local productions of Les Misérables, and facing a fourth, over a year-and-a-half span. Yet after attending the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's version on Friday, my love for the material is renewed, as director Jerry Jay Cranford's staging adds intimacy while still possessing the grandeur of composers Alain Boublil's and Claude-Michel Schönberg's musical masterpiece.
This newly close relationship between show and audience is largely created with the help of scenic designer Susan D. Holgersson's set. Her raised, stone-wall-like platforms on either side of the stage limit the performance space - which, in turn, makes the relatively small cast (for Les Mis) seem bigger as they fill a more compact area. It also brings the actors closer together, making their characters' shared experiences seem both claustrophobic and communal, and their cozy convergence had this jaded-from-overexposure reviewer stirred to passion and tears.
The waterworks started in an unexpected spot - when Adam Clough's nuanced Javert sang "Stars." The song is about the inspector's respect for order and truth. Yet Clough, particularly through his use of softer vocals paired with deep emotion, turns the solo into a sort of love song, revealing an underlying affection for the order of God's creation, and the beauty of right-minded living, that layers this otherwise rather heartless figure. "Stars" makes Javert's never-ending hunt for parole-breaker Jean Valjean (Don Denton) seem driven more from conviction and honor than merciless commitment to the letter of the law.
Passion also stirred in me during the scene at the ABC Cafe in which Cody Webb's stalwart Enjolras attempts to enlist his friends to revolt, while Collin O'Connor's dreamy Marius tells of his newfound love for Cosette (Kimberly Steffen). The players sang with such devotion to their cause that I was almost convinced to sing along and join their crusade - and in truth, the entire cast sings so well, Cranford could've set them in place at the front of the stage for the entire performance and the piece would still be fantastic.
Denton, meanwhile, is not only in better voice than I've ever heard him, but his Valjean clearly ages as the plot progresses, which doesn't always happen in productions of Les Mis. With long, loose hair and a bushy beard, his newly released convict is youthful and unkempt in look and spirit as the character wrestles with his disproportionately harsh prison term. Yet once his redemption begins through the grace of Tristan Layne Tapscott's calm, collected Bishop of Digne, Denton makes the first of many costume changes (from yet another impressive wardrobe line created by designer extraordinaire Gregory Hiatt), pulls his hair back into a ponytail, and adds a touch of gray to it. And as this graying slowly spreads through the course of the show, Denton's stature gradually fades so that the wiry Valjean we saw at the start of the story becomes, convincingly, the feebler elderly man at its end.
Caitlin Borek underscores her tragic Fantine with a subtle sassiness in the face of the co-workers attempting to get her fired, while Allison Wille's young Cosette adds an "aw-w-w" factor through her singing voice that's closer to how children actually sound than you'd hear from a trained professional. (Through Les Mis' run, Wille will share the role, as well as that of young Éponine, with Lily Leding, Grace Moore, and Elizabeth Mooy.) Joseph Brune's Gavroche, likewise, is more a believable boy with a youthful zest than a street-hardened urchin. (Brune will alternate playing his role with Gage McCalester.)
Also noteworthy is Ronnie Breedlove's lighting design, especially his abundant use of spotlights. Oftentimes, the stage lights go black, leaving only one or two spots lit. This allows cast members to fade into the shadows while the story continues, contributing to Cranford's continuous flow that helps make the two-and-a-half-hour run-time seem not nearly as long.
Unfortunately, I do take issue with a few of the production's elements. Holgersson's otherwise remarkable design includes an underwhelming barricade that's a painted wall rather than a three-dimensional set piece. James Fairchild's diction made him difficult to understand during Friday's performance, so I missed several of his lines. O'Connor didn't seem to adequately comprehend the meaning of some of his lyrics on opening night, such as when he sang "Hey, little boy, who's this I see? / God, Éponine, the things you do!" in a flat manner, rather than registering his recognition of Lili Torre's Éponine (who's dressed as a boy) midway through his greeting. And Steffen's Cosette, who seemed to enjoy the movement of her hoop skirt too much, came across as a bit of a sickeningly sweet Disney princess.
O'Connor and Steffen (almost) make up for their flaws, however, with flawless, beautiful voices, and taken overall, this production is, in my estimation, among the finest to ever grace the Circa '21 stage. It says a lot when someone who was tired of Les Misérables is now listening to the soundtrack again, on repeat, and even considering a repeat visit. So: Bravo, Circa '21! Bravo!
Les Misérables runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through March 21, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.