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