The thought of a smallish theater company staging the epic “Les Misérables” might seem like a “castle on a cloud,” to borrow a phrase from the story’s orphan-waif, Cosette.
But when the creators of the 1980s megamusical decided to release the property to regional theaters for the first time, Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre smartly snapped it up. Now Victor Hugo’s tale of love, loss and social chaos has arrived with considerable fanfare and flourish, and director Justin Anderson’s nicely staged production promises to be a runaway hit.
And a revelation. Especially for audience members whose previous encounters with Javert and Jean Valjean were limited to Broadway-scale productions and last year’s film treatment starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway.
Indeed, Aurora’s intimate telling — which unspools on set designer Phillip Male’s approximation of 19th-century clutter and claustrophobia — is refreshingly intimate. It probably won’t make you miss the original production’s trademark turntable one bit. (In the design department, Mike Post’s evocative lighting and Alan Yeong’s period rags, gowns and military garb are also deployed to grand effect.)
Alas, the excess of sentimentality, maudlin emotion and crude comedy remains very much on display here.
In transporting Hugo’s famously discursive, 1,400-page historical novel to the stage, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel distill the tale of the heroic Jean Valjean (Bryant Smith), the evil Javert (Kevin Harry), the unfortunate Fantine (Natasha Drena) and her illegitimate daughter, Cosette (Kelly Chapin Schmidt), into a kind of “Sweeney Todd”-meets-“Annie” template. (Cosette, before she is adopted by Valjean, is the Cinderellalike charge of the pernicious Madame and Monsieur Thénardier, played to the hilt by Marcie Millard and Anthony P. Rodriguez.)
While I can’t speak to Boublil and Natel’s French lyrics, I have always found Herbert Kretzmer’s English translation to be positively cringe-worthy. No fault of this ensemble, of course, but a fact that is quite clear from the first notes of “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Castle on a Cloud” and so on.
Contrasting with Smith’s handsomely nuanced take on Valjean and Harry’s menacing but never ludicrous spin on Javert, Drena’s account of Fantine is a mawkish caricature of regret and despair. As if to reassure us that Cosette is very much the child of her absent mother, Schmidt at first imbues the part with some of the same overembellishments, though she acquits herself gracefully as the story unfolds. Rounding out the romantic triangle is the wonderful Michael Stiggers as Marius and a poignant Leslie Bellair as the unlucky-in-love Éponine.
Music director Ann-Carol Pence and her 10-piece band provide a virtually seamless musical soundscape for the operatic, sung-through musical. Choreographer Sarah Turner Sechelski creates delightful dances. And the children who play the young Cosette and Gavroche — Mabel Tyler and Daniel Forbes Jr. on the afternoon I caught the show — are excellent.
With a three-hour run time, this production is a bit of a time commitment, but “Les Miz” fans old and new probably won’t care. Despite my mixed feelings about the material, I can’t help but admire Aurora’s pluck and ambition. They dreamed a dream. They made it happen. And France takes Lawrenceville by storm.