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Saturday, August 10, 2013

'Les Misérables' at Toby’s est Magnifique

Photo by Kirstine Christiansen
If you bought a ticket simply to hear the magical tenor voice of Daniel Felton who plays Jean Valjean in the stellar production of Les Misérables currently at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, it would be worth it just for that.  The same could be said for experiencing the performances of Lawrence B. Munsey as Javert or Theresa Cunningham as Madame Thenardier or the rest of the ensemble or even the scrumptious buffet.  But there is more, much more.
This version of Les Mis at Toby’s in-the-round configuration maintains the high level of brilliance expected from such a great work with its outstanding score and orchestration, magnificent individual performances, creative and efficient staging and spectacular costuming.  All these elements were overseen by co-directors Toby Orenstein and Steven Fleming who not only met the physical challenges of mounting such a complex, lavish production in this venue but exceeded it.

Les Misérables, a classic sung-through musical based on the novel by the French poet/playwright Victor Hugo, has been entertaining audiences throughout the world for decades.  The Broadway musical, whose score was written by Claude-Michel Schönberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer, opened in March 1987 and ran until May 2003, closing after 6,680 performances. It is the fourth longest-running Broadway show in history.  Les Misérables was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won eight, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
The storyline with its adventure, drama, love, generosity, redemption and tragedy has many moving parts to it, but it essentially follows the life of a peasant Jean Valjean in early 19th century France.  He had been imprisoned 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to help his starving sister’s child.  Valjean broke parole and started his life over with the benefit of a helping hand from a kind Bishop.  He was relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert whose sense of justice did not allow him to believe that a man could change for the better.

As a town mayor and factory owner eight years later, Valjean rescued a dying woman named Fantine from the police and promised her to care for her young daughter Cosette, whom he liberates from the abusive innkeepers-turned-street gang leaders, the Thénardiers.    

Years pass by and Valjean is still being dogged by Javert, and a student uprising begins in Paris.  One of the revolutionaries, Marius, falls in love with the grown Cosette who reciprocates, and they eventually marry.  Valjean, who rescued Marius from an injury sustained at the hands of the French military at the barricades, ultimately reveals his identity before he passes on. 
Much occurs in between as this is merely a general summary.  Since there is no dialogue, the entire plot is revealed through music, and the performances were characterized by top-notch vocals with clear enunciation of the lyrics to illuminate the story.  The six-piece orchestra led by Christopher Youstra provided the musical support to help allow the performers to excel. 

Most of the ensemble are Toby’s regulars and are accustomed to the contours of the theatre and the stage presence required of the actors.  They performed superbly led by Daniel Felton as Valjean.  Possessing a powerful voice that is pitch perfect combined with his ability to hold long notes, Mr. Felton is a standout.  “Who Am I” and “Bring Him Home” are two of the noteworthy numbers in which Mr. Fenton shines.
Toby’s mainstay Lawrence B. Munsey turned in one of his best performances yet as the intense Javert.  Not only does he burnish his vocal chops in “Stars” and “Soliloquy,” but his dynamic acting skills come into play as well.

Janine Sunday as the tragic figure Fantine also performed nicely, and her main song, “I Dreamed a Dream” was performed well.

Jeffrey S. Shankle as the student revolutionary Marius and the love interest of Cosette, though not quite as young as one would expect from the role, is excellent in both acting and vocals.  He is convincingly passionate and sings effectively in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” and in a duet with Mary Kate Brouillet as Eponine, the daughter of the Thénardiers (David James and Theresa Cunningham) in “A Little Fall of Rain.”
Helen Hayes award winner for her role as Sofia in The Color Purple at Toby’s, Ms. Cunningham, as Madame Thénardier, adroitly demonstrates her vocal prowess and funny facial expressions in her scenes.  The Thénardiers are a conniving couple who provide what little comedy the show offers. Mr. James, who leads my personal favorite number, “Master of the House,” was a bit understated for such a campy, energetic song.  He does it better, however, in “Beggars at the Feast.”

Another vocal standout is Ben Lurye as Enjolras, the leader of the student revolutionaries and Marius’ friend.  His rendition of “Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” with other members of the ensemble is fantastic.
Other noteworthy mentions are young Jace Franco as the street urchin Gavroche, Katie Heibreder as Cosette, Andrew Horn as the Bishop of Digne and David Bosley-Reynolds as the Factory Foreman.  The remainder of the company, including the revolutionaries, are also strong.

Costume Designers David Gregory and Shannon M. Maddox set up the cast in magnificently accurate period attire.  Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin proficiently used lighting effects to augment the mostly dramatic scenes.

Scenic Designer David Hopkins utilizes large props and furnishings as well as the iconic barricades made of scaffolding to provide dimension to the solid production—no small feat considering the confines of the theatre.  Scene changes occur rapidly and seamlessly.
This production of Les Mis is tout simplement spectaculaire and worthy of the rollicking standing ovation it received at show’s end. 

Running time: Three hours with an intermission.
Les Misérables at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia runs through November 10.  For tickets and information, call 410-730-8311 or visit online or Ticketmaster.


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