Peoria Players Theatre opens its 95th season with the musical “Les Miserables.” Stan Strickler has this review for Peoria Public Radio and the Live Theatre League of Peoria. Opinions expressed are those of the reviewer, not those of Peoria Public Radio or the Live Theatre League.
First I would like to start with a disclaimer: Les Mis is my all time favorite musical, and I have seen it done numerous times by professional companies. So I am always a bit apprehensive when I go to a community theater production since it requires such monumental scope in talent and theatrics. I must report that Peoria Players production of Les Mis delights in all aspects. In fact I would not call this Les Miserables at all but rather La Fantasique.
The story, based on a Victor Hugo novel, covers many years as Jean Valjean is released from prison and through an act of kindness discovers redemption causing him to lead a better life even as he is pursued relentlessly by his former jailer Javert. He raises a Cosette the daughter of a woman who has fallen on hard times. As she grows she falls in love with a young revolutionary Marius who is saved from death by Valjean.
Since this show is sung through (similar to an opera) it requires excellent singing as well as acting, and this version does not disappoint in the least. Director Connie Sinn and music director Camilla Russel have assembled and coached an excellent cast. There is certainly a wealth of talent in the Peoria area. Charles Brown was truly wonderful in the demanding role of Jean Valjean hitting every note with precision and feeling. Also outstanding were Brian Witkowski as Marius, Lindsey Pugh as Eponine, and Chloe Morton as Cosette. Their love song trio “A Heart Full of Love” was just one of a number of high points in the show.
In fact there were so many high points that it is difficult to name just a few. Steve Bortolotti and Rachel Lewis as the comic relief were hilarious, giving slightly over the top performances without resulting in overdoing it In the pivotal role of Fantine Ashley Pugh performed and sang admirably. Of course mention should also be made of the children in the show. Emily Schroff, Cecelia Huerta, and Gianna Colombo preformed excellently with conviction and stage presence.
John Huerta as Inspector Javert also has an excellent voice and the staging of this suicide was well done considering the technical difficulties in staging the scene. While his acting was excellent, I would have liked to see him a bit more tenacious as he doggedly pursues Valjean over the years. His opening scenes were good, but he seemed less menacing as the play progressed.
In addition to the amazing acting and singing the technical aspects of this show did not disappoint. The set by Julie Wasson was wonderful given the limitations of Peoria Players stage. Almost every production I have seen uses a turntable and fly space, and although they were not available, the set allowed for quick scene changes. Of course credit for that must also be given to Wayne Carey for his wonderful use of lighting to delineate the various scenes. The costumes by Carrie McMillion were also beautiful and recreated France in the early to mid nineteenth century.
Any criticisms I would have with the show were minor. Valjean’s beard in the opening scenes was rather clumsy and distracting. And the death scene at the end was not deeply affecting. The staging of that scene was just a little clunky and awkward. Also because not all characters were miked, some of the single lines were drowned out by the orchestra.
However, if your only experience of Les Mis is the movie version I would encourage you to head out to Peoria Players. It will not disappoint since all of the actors can sing and all of the singers can act and you won’t have to look at close ups of tonsils and bad teeth.
“Les Miserables” continues its run at Peoria Players Theatre, with performances through Sunday, with performances at 7:30pm, matinees at 2:00. More information is available at www.PeoriaPlayers.org.