Les Misérables is an epic musical, and Countryside Community Theatre should be commended for its noble effort in staging the multi-layered, much-loved piece by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. Director David Turley and his cast treat the material with the respect it deserves. Friday night's performance, however, was still riddled with problems, many of them of a technical nature.
Microphone issues were among the biggest obstacles in Countryside's staging of this musical about ex-convict Jean Valjean (David Arnold) and his attempts to lead a compassionate life, raise the orphaned daughter of a mistreated factory worker, and evade the unforgiving police inspector Javert (Brian Peterson). Aside from the rampant sound problems on Les Misérables' opening night - from mics not working to their not being turned on until soloists were partway through their lyrics (which happened far too often to ignore) - there was the issue of who did and didn't have a body microphone. Some chorus members were wearing mics for single solo lines in numbers while others were not, and some performers with microphones still sang with less volume than those who crooned without electronic aid. The innkeeper Thénardier (Adam Nardini) didn't even have a mic - at least, not a working one - during the entire first act, which was a significant problem during his big solo "Master of the House." (Thankfully, Nardini was able to project his way to a pleasingly dynamic and bawdy performance, one only topped by Tracy Pelzer-Timm's turn as Madame Thénardier; her brusque vocals and lowbrow take on the innkeeper's wife are highlights of the production, and of the performer's remarkable area repertoire of notable characters.)
For Arnold, his microphone isn't a problem so much as the tone and gentle nature of his voice, which was frequently hard to hear over Friday's oftentimes off-pitch orchestra. So many of Valjean's lyrics were lost in the general din, in truth, that it could be hard for anyone unfamiliar with the story to follow its plot. Arnold also could have used a boost of confidence, it seemed. His vocals (when you could hear them) were beautiful and his post-redemption Valjean possessed a sincere amiability and compassion. Unfortunately, Arnold's performance read as though he were uncertain of his qualifications to fill the role, which diminished his greatness. Were Arnold to fully believe in himself, I have little doubt his Valjean would be outstanding.
As it is, it's Peterson's Javert who steals the spotlight, with his pitch-perfect vocals and flawless tone contributing to the coldness of his merciless character. Peterson also displays beautiful emotional layering, most notably as Javert approaches Valjean hesitantly early in the first act, wondering if the man is indeed the convict number 24601 he has long been chasing; there's genuine uncertainty in his voice that reflects an internal wrestling match between Javert's recognition of the former prisoner and his recognition of Valjean's seemingly impossible goodness. It's Javert's ultimate demise, however, that's especially staggering, as Peterson's anguish is palpable in the moments before his Javert throws himself from the bridge (a scene for which Turley employs director Trevor Nunn's effective original Broadway staging).
Keegan Harry's delightfully spunky Gavroche, however, was the victim of another of Friday's unfortunate technical issues: a broken stage. Partway into the first act, the set's large, central revolve stopped working, with a loud ratcheting sound announcing its failing. And while the cast well handled the spontaneous staging changes required to make up for the issue, Gavroche's death suffered for it, because the impressive barricade on the revolve was surely meant to spin so that the audience could get a view from its front, where Gavroche was killed. Instead, Harry was forced to sing (and Gavroche was forced to perish) from behind the barricade, and our inability to actually see his death diminished its emotional impact significantly.
That barricade, otherwise, was the setting for Turley's grandest scenes, with the cast members stationed on it creating impressive layers and a sense of the stage truly being filled, as befits a production of an epic musical. And lighting designer Dale Marshall's choices for either front-lighting or back-lighting the stage (but rarely both) mostly in blue light, combined with the set's ever-present smoke effects, created an almost oppressive gloominess that fit the plight of the, well, miserable ones featured in the story. (I did, though, sometimes wish I had a clearer view of Les Misérables' actors.)
Turley does, however, tend to lean a bit heavily on placing soloists on an empty stage with little to do but make occasional crosses from one side to the other, which would work better if the performers - beyond Peterson, Nardini, and Pelzer-Timm, that is - would use their full bodies to act rather than just their voices and faces, an effect that renders some scenes boring. Even the usually dynamic Christina Myatt neglects to act below the neck, though her Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" is beautifully voiced and stirring. Turley also heavily favors placing ensemble members in straight lines, configurations that seem a bit too orderly and diminish the performers' collective stage presence.
Still, there is much to commend in this production. Sydney Crumbleholme's Cosette and Kyle DeFauw's Marius - with their virginal, first-love excitement - are in lovely voice and are beautifully paired opposite one another. Scenic designer Tom Goodall's set is epic in scale, particularly in the floor-to-ceiling stonework at the back and flanking the stage, and the rear double doors that Turley uses well for effectively dramatic entrances. And Turley also stages a bit of a magic trick in the transition between the songs "Who Am I?" and "Come to Me." (The judges in the former scene are seen seated behind a French flag representing their bench, and when the flag is eventually removed, we see Fantine in a bed that seemed to appear out of thin air.) With such obvious effort made to live up to the expectations of this musical's fans, I've little doubt that Countryside's Les Misérables will improve over the course of its three-weekend run, especially if the cast and crew are able to correct Friday's technical - and confidence - issues.
Les Misérables runs at the North Scott High School Fine Arts Auditorium (200 South First Street, Eldridge) through July 21, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)285-6228 or visiting CCTOnStage.org.