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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Les Miserables’

Javert & Fantine

“Les Miserables” is all the rage at the community theater level this summer. When I heard that Reedley’s River City Theatre Company was tackling the ambitious musical, my first thought was: But the stage is so small!

Don’t fret. I’m still not quite sure how they do it, but director Mark Norwood and set designers Sarah Wiebe and Steve Jones manage to fit a tidy but effective version of the musical’s famed barricade into the tiny space at the Reedley Opera House. What makes this particular set piece — and this production in general — work so well is the intimacy of the space. Sure, you might have seen a professional touring production of “Les Miz” with massive stage and herculean spinning turntable offering a widescale view of rebellion. But in Reedley, it’s as if you’re right up there with the actors, holed up with them behind a bunch of junk on a narrow Paris street, feeling their anger and angst, absorbing their stirring words and the show’s famed melodies, as if you’re part of the fight.

It’s that way throughout this fully staged, full-length, small but scrappy rendition of “Les Miz.” You get it all: Jean Valjean’s chain gang, Fantine’s tearful death, Madame Thenardier’s over-the-top meanness, Enjolras’ studly student bravado, Javert’s tormented psyche. Some scenes, such as the barricades and the gate outside Valjean’s Paris house, work extremely well on the small stage. (I did miss the traditional onstage demise of Gavroche, but that’s the director’s prerogative.) Others, such as the sewer scene, take a little more imagination on the part of the audience. But it all somehow works.

The highlight performance for me is Kelly Hall’s Eponine. Beautiful vocals and strong acting come together in a memorable “On My Own.” Later, Hall and a strong Jonathan Wheeler as Marius share one of the most tender Eponine death scenes I’ve ever seen in a “Les Miz.” Again, the intimate space makes you feel as if you’re there with the students, watching her last moments, with Eponine and Marius singing “A Little Fall of Rain” face to face.

Michael Westpy is a heartfelt Valjean, with his “Bring Him Home” showing off a sterling falsetto. And Nicholle Debbas’ feisty Fantine offers a tender “I Dreamed a Dream.”

Through it all, I kept thinking: Not only did Reedley pull off “Les Miz,” but this hard-working company does it with passion and style. As Gavroche might paraphrase: Little theater spaces can have some bite.

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PICTURED: Tanamin Clark and Nicholle Debbas in Reedley’s “Les Miserables.”

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Les Miserables’"

Jeanette Saxton says:

It was and AMAZING spectacle!!! … and a TREMENDOUS blessing to the valley! DO NOT let the opportunity to experience this production pass you by! It TRULY is a MUST SEE!!

Stephen says:

Saw it last night. As always, Donald. you choose your words perfectly and…carefully.

I kind of wanted a more detailed review here, although I understand why you didn’t do that – why elevate the super-talented too high, or denigrate the less-so, especially with a small-town community theatre production?

But then I remembered why – and this has been discussed here in great detail, but the show cost $25 without dinner (but feel free to review the apple crisps – yum!). At that price, even for small town stuff, the review can go further in my estimation.

Because the stellar performers are just that, really compelling to watch and in the case of Jonathan Wheeler as Marius, a new gift to Reedley theatre (I’ve never seen nor heard of this guy before, and he was tremendous).

There are cheeseball moments (when the characters sing “RED” the spotlight on them goes red – ugh), but there are also really special and touching moments. Eponine’s death wasn’t one for me because they were on the ground and I couldn’t see them, but Val Jean’s death was very touching, really well staged and worked through.

For RCTC, where I’ve grown used to seeing super cheeseball original comedies and some very small-town versions of bigtime shows, Les Mis was a big success for them. Sure there were characters who just couldn’t sing (only a couple), and a couple who aren’t strong actors (Val Jean’s voice is nice, but clearly very little acting experience), but the chorus was so incredibly strong and talented, the multiple-role actors also very strong, and even with little experience, Javert’s voice and imposing presence worked well.

The show is oh-so-long to me, but last night’s experience was enjoyable overall, and your review sent me there.

(but frankly? I’m so glad I didn’t see Gavroche’s death – that kid bugged me!).

I do enjoy that your highlight performance was Eponine, while mine was Marius. One person you mentioned by name for her set should’ve also been mentioned by name for her performance – Sarah Weibe absolutely made every scene she was in click with her thrilling energy and better-than-HelenaBonham singing and performance.

Thanks, tho, for your reviews. I love reading them before AND after I see the shows!

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