Monday, October 14, 2013

Faulkner: "Les Miserables"

At roughly 2.5 hours, the relentless pace of the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre's production of Les Miserables, the international record-breaking musical, only rarely slows down. -- Spurred, no doubt, by the play's success since its original 1984 opening in London, and the recent blockbuster film, Faulkner's co-directors Angela Dickson and Jason Clark South are filling the house in the four week run of this most ambitious undertaking: non-stop action for some 31 actors, a demanding orchestral and vocal musical score, numerous large scene changes, and hardly a break from heightened emotions.

It is fair to say that while Faulkner's theatre is no match for the huge scale of a major Broadway house or a big-screen film, there are moments here that capture its power with the Chorus in full voice in the signature "Peoples' Song" and "One Day More", as they fill Matt Dickson's simple evocative set with strong harmonies and emotional power.

Victor Hugo's novel on which the musical is based covers the vast sweep of the French Revolution and its clarion call for "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" that can still be felt today in clear social and economic distinctions between the haves and have-nots; but the Revolution recedes somewhat when it concentrates on the personal stories of the people of little consequence.

The plot revolves around Jean Valjean [Brandtley McDonald] in his attempt to change his life after being released from a 19-year prison sentence for a petty crime, and given a second chance by a benevolent Bishop [Patrick Hale]. Pursued by Inspector Javert [Matt Dickson] for breaking his parole, Valjean (under an assumed name) helps a destitute woman Fantine [Jesse Alston] and rescues her daughter Cosette from the con-artist innkeepers Thenardier [Chris Kelly] and Mme. Thenardier [Mara Woddail]. Ten years later when Cosette grows up [Brittney Johnston], she falls in love with Marius [Blake Williams], one of the revolutionaries under the leadership of the charismatic Enjolras [David Rowland].

Valjean's moral dilemma is often tested: "Who am I?" is a refrain frequently heard as he questions whether to save others or himself, keeping secrets or telling the truth, duty to the Revolution or to his promise to Fantine. And he has an impact on other characters, especially Javert, who face similar, if opposite conditions.

There is a paucity of spoken dialogue in Les Miz; more operatic in structure, the bulk of plot action, character development, and social commentary are carried in music and song lyrics.

Quality singing has become a hallmark of Faulkner's productions, and so it is here in most of the featured roles as well as the aforementioned Chorus. -- Musical Director Marilyn Swears and Conductor of the fine nine-member pit orchestra Andrew Cook support the actors without overwhelming them, though only the principal actors are "miked", rendering a lot of the lyrics assigned to supporting roles (lines which contain essential plot details) completely inaudible.

As the inkeepers, Mr.Kelly and Ms. Woddail invest in the disarming comic properties of "Master of the House", making their more greedy elements in Act II more pronounced.

Eponine [Alicia Ruth Jackson], caught between devotion to the Revolution and love for Marius, delivers an exquisite "On My Own", but is otherwise given little emphasis in this production through unfortunate staging and vocal amplification in the second act.

While the romantic chemistry between Cosette and Marius is lessened by Mr. Williams's rigid postures, Ms. Johnston makes the most of her lyrical soprano voice and her absolute emotional commitment to Marius as well as to her protector, Valjean. Long overdue a role of this stature, Ms. Johnston brings you to tears and admiration.

Ms. Alston as Fantine can break hearts with "I Dreamed a Dream", so much that when Fantine dies midway through Act I, her presence is felt long after.

Young Matthew Klinger plays Gavroche, the urchin who proclaims with conviction "I run this town" with impressive maturity.

Mr. Rowland brings to the stage the full-package that sets a high bar in playing Enjolras. He commands every scene he is in without stealing focus, urging the revolutionaries with a passionate swagger that charismatically engages the audience with the on-stage action. Every inch the leader physically and vocally, Mr. Rowland's credibility is never in doubt and is one of the most solid portrayals on Faulkner's stage.

Mr. Dickson's Javert is a powerful antgagonist whose obsession in tracking down Valjean is his sole raison d'etre.  Mr. Dickson's threatening demeanor becomes gradually more introspective as Javert wrestles with Valjean's compassion towards him, finally reducing him to self-doubt and a feeling of worthlessness. -- It is in their scenes together that we feel most strongly the inmpact of the Revolution on individual lives, as both men contend with doubts that take them in opposite directions -- suicide and salvation.

Valjean is Hugo's hero, and the protagonist whose journey is central to everything else as he influences all the other characters. Mr. McDonald takes on the task of carrying the show on his capable shoulders. He has a powerful voice that almost overwhelms in the opening of Act I, that one wonders if he has anything in reserve for later on; but he does, and in the quieter moments ("Valjean's Prayer", for example) exhibits vocal control and emotional credibility. -- This role is a test in a way, and demonstrates that Mr. McDonald is on his way to becoming as fine an actor as he is a singer.

There is a lot of bombast in Les Miserables -- military and patriotic grandstanding, for example, combined with melodramatic romanticism; and while many of the crowd scenes involving French citizens and prostitutes are self-consciously staged with only modest commitment to creating stories of believable characters, the overall impact is achieved. Les Miz aficionados ought to be pleased by the musical presentations, and everyone will feel the impact of the Faulkner production's efforts.