By Richard Ades
As the familiar opening strains of Les Miserables filled the air, I held my breath. Having seen the blockbuster musical at least four times (including the 2012 movie), I knew how much depended on the actor playing Jean Valjean.
Would he have a voice powerful enough to carry off the demanding part? Would he have enough acting chops to make us care about the put-upon French fugitive?
But as soon as Bill Hafner sang Valjean’s first few notes, I began to relax. Hafner not only has an exceptional voice, but he’s able to project the combination of nobility and humility that makes Valjean such an appealing hero.
And Hafner is far from the only talent who’s up to the Les Miz challenge. Director David R. Bahgat and his cast and crew have created something remarkable on the JCC stage. Every performance, every lighting effect, every costume contributes to an experience that builds to one emotional climax after another.
Set in the early 19th century, the Claude Michel Schonberg/Alain Boublil/Jeffrey Hatcher musical focuses on Valjean’s attempt to remake and redeem himself after serving years at hard labor for the petty crime of stealing a loaf of bread. When he unknowingly contributes to the downfall of a single mother named Fantine, he takes on a new responsibility as the guardian of her young daughter, Cosette.
Meanwhile, he’s constantly forced to be on the lookout for Javert, a police officer who’s determined to bring him to justice for violating his parole. But that doesn’t stop him from becoming entangled with young idealists who are determined to launch a revolution.
Besides Hafner, many cast members give affecting performances in this sung-through musical. They include:
• Melissa Muguruza as Fantine
• Violet Hicks (alternating with Sigal Judd) as her young daughter, Cosette
• Amy Rittberger as the grown Cosette
• Madeline Bolzenius as the lovelorn Eponine
Eponine’s disreputable parents, the Thenardiers, are deliciously played by Mark Schuliger and Mary Sink. Their appearances, especially the rousing number Master of the House, give the tragedy-prone musical a few welcome moments of comic relief.
Moments of romantic relief arise after the grown Cosette falls for young revolutionary Marius (Elisha Beachy), leading to such beautiful ballads as A Heart Full of Love. But this subplot, too, has a tragic element, as it dooms Eponine’s own feelings for Marius, as expressed in her heart-rending lament On My Own.
Marius’s fellow revolutionaries include leader Enjolras (Jay Rittberger) and a plucky street urchin named Gavroche (Yaakov Newman). Their anthems, including Do You Hear the People Sing?, are as glorious as ever, but they take on a touching note of pathos in this production. That’s because the performances and even director Bahgat’s costume designs suggest that Enjolras and his followers are really just idealistic “schoolboys,” as Javert derisively calls them.
As for Javert, Scott Green plays him with the ramrod posture of a man who’s unable to see beyond his narrow interpretation of right and wrong. Green mostly meets the role’s vocal needs, but his voice occasionally showed signs of strain at the matinee I attended.
Les Miz fans know that Javert’s final exit is a challenge for a semiprofessional troupe like Gallery Players. Fortunately, Bahgat handles it with creativity and dramatic flair—qualities that mark the entire production.
As I said in the beginning, much rides on Jean Valjean’s broad shoulders, and actor Hafner never disappoints. His rendition of the difficult Act 2 solo Bring Him Home is simply the highpoint of a triumphant lead performance.
But there is so much else that contributes to the show’s success, including Jon Baggs’s scenery and Jarod Wilson’s light and sound design.
Yes, there are minor problems: the odd sour note from the band, a few voices that are under-amplified. None of these detract from the show’s ability to pull us into a musical that retains its ability to move us even after multiple viewings.
At its best, Les Miserables is a mesmerizing experience. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, this is Les Miserables at its best.
Gallery Players will present Les Miserables through March 29 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25 ($20 JCC members), $20 ages 60-plus ($18 JCC members), $15 students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.