Some might be skeptical about a community-theater production of Les Miserables, and with the local professionals at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre having professionally turned out a great version recently. Qualms are quickly dispelled, though, once the musical starts at Carmel's Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre. "Look down, look down," sing the male actors of the company in their foreboding prisoner monotone. But look up, theatergoer, for the spectacle over these three hours (with intermission) is rewarding. The rest of this review will assume either one of two things: You know the show already, or you don't covet spoilers.
Opening night on April 25 featured fantastic performances by the actors portraying Jean Valjean (Matt Branic), Eponine (Emily Hollowell), and the treacherous Thenardiers (J. Stuart Mill and Marni Lemons). Mill and Lemons gamely provided the show's key comic relief, with astute timing, clever physical gags (choreographed by Anne Nicole Beck), and solid singing voices, especially that of Lemons.
The cast's strongest female player emerged after a time: Hollowell's Eponine soared vocally, seemingly effortlessly. Audiences should revel in her knack for emoting on every line and with every movement, a true singer-actor. This Les Mis run also boasts a strong male cast across the board. What Branic's Valjean lacks in the role's typically intimidating physical presence, he more than made up for with his crisp tenor timbre. Paul D. Nicely's Inspector Javert played the counterpart well, and came off as a palate-cleanser after the international nightmare that was Russell Crowe barking the role on film.
Joe Doyel's Marius wielded not just a rifle but a strong, full voice, though Patrick Clements, in the smaller role of Enjolras, outshined him—and most everyone else—with his own powerful instrument. Clements's singing came off effortless, with control beyond compare in Indy's community-theater scene.
Some shortcomings: Nathalie Cruz, as Fantine, appeared a bit stiff, perhaps meaning to convey the passion and stress of her character's plight. She seemed a bit out of place in the part, and a review of her bio from the program showed that she may excel in comedic roles (such as the titular player in The Drowsy Chaperone) as opposed to the drippy, high-end drama of Les Mis. Elsewhere, Virginia Vasquez Vought's (adult) Cosette had some pitch problems, though it was interesting, in this writer's 12th look at the show, to lay eyes on a dark-haired Cosette for once. The need for a blonde Cosette and a brunette Eponine (always the meatier, showier role) has always been artificial.
Overall, music direction by Brent E. Marty was impeccable, and though the show lacks obvious choreography, the simple marching of the nearly full company from upstage to downstage (front to back) during "One Day More" to close Act 1 was powerful in its simplicity. (And, again, those voices.)
Civic's set design for this show is stunning, top to bottom, courtesy Robert Koharchik. To nitpick perhaps, the barricade (of barrels, wooden boxes, and the like) at which many of Act 2's scenes transpire looked a little too tidy and put-together for the dire situation at hand for the characters, a bit too polished. The lighting design by Ryan Koharchik was similarly impressive, with beautiful use of shadows and backlighting to set moods and tones. Director Robert J. Sorbera has an embarrassment of vocal and technical riches to play with on his team, a fact hardly lost on him, no doubt.
A few sound-balancing issues between vocals and orchestral output were sure to be worked out on the heels of opening night. While live strings were missing from Al French's orchestra, replaced by keyboards, budgetary restraints were likely the issue. [Editor's Note: Marni Lemons, who plays Madame Thenardier, informs us that this particular show, scored for keyboards, didn't forego strings as a budgetary matter.]
Do see this production, perhaps the best community-theater take on a massive musical that you'll see locally for some time around Indianapolis.
Les Miserables. Showtimes now through May 10, Wednesdays,Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 7 p.m.; May 10 at 5 p.m.; and Sundays, 2 p.m. Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, 3 Center Green, Carmel, 317-843-3800, civictheatre.org