Here’s the thing about the musical “Les Miserables:” Its story sprawls decades, it has a huge cast, it’s difficult to stage. And while the play, based on Victor Hugo’s book of the same name, is epic, gorgeous, heartbreaking, uplifting, it is also an expensive piece to stage and demands strong, strong voices. It’s a daunting project to take on.
Here’s the thing about Arizona Onstage Productions, which opened “Les Miz” Saturday: Its founder and artistic director Kevin Johnson embraces daunting.
And the thing about the company’s production of “Les Miz,” which opened Saturday? The all-Tucson cast proved that when the talent and heart are in place, thrilling things can happen.
Kit Runge, in the role of Jean Valjean, the man who spends his life running from the law and toward redemption, has a riveting voice. He has been in several Arizona Onstage musicals, but in this production he revealed a range and nuance we hadn’t seen before. His Valjean is angry, conflicted, vulnerable, tender and harsh. One of the many highlights Runge provided was the delicate “Bring Him Home,” beseeching God to save the revolutionary Marius. He made it the heartbreaking prayer it should be.
Amy Erbe’s Fantine, whose dying request is that Valjean care for her child Cosette, was spellbinding. That is especially true when she sat on stage alone, bathed in light, and sang “I Dreamed A Dream” with astounding conviction and beauty. The depth of the character’s despair was palpable.
Erin Anderson’s Eponine, who loves Marius in vain, was deeply rooted and Anderson’s voice soared in the painful “On My Own.”
Chach Snook hasn’t done much musical theater in Tucson (though he did for the decade he lived in New York City), and it is our loss. He has a commanding voice and as Enjolras, the leader of the student revolution, he was rousing and riveting.
Liz Cracchiolo-Samaniego and Dennis Tamblyn provided the much-needed comic relief as the thieving innkeepers M. and Mme. Thenardier. They had perfect timing and impeccable voices.
Also keeping our attention with their powerful singing: Juan Aguirre (Javert), Jessica Leonard (Cosette), and Tyler Wright (Marius).
This production didn’t skimp on the chorus — the ensemble topped 40 people — and to hear that many sing, especially the powerful first-act ender “One Day More,” was chill inducing.
The original Broadway production of “Les Miserables” was famous for its turntable set. This production — as the current Broadway production does — dispensed with that. Director Johnson used few set pieces — most prominently two rolling ladders — and slide images to suggest the scenes. It did not suffer. Johnson understood that song and story were the most necessary elements, and he nailed that.
Many small company productions of “Les Miz” turn to the recorded score for the music. Johnson wasn’t going to have that. His orchestra of 14 musicians, led by Enrique “Hank” Feldman, is smaller than the New York production (it has 17), but still provided a full, rich sound.
Don Fox underscored the gun battle, the death scenes, the big moments and little ones, with beautiful lighting. Lighting is largely unsung, but it is essential in telling a story, emphasizing moments, and creating an ambiance. Fox deserves a standing ovation for his work on this show.
Was this production perfect?
Well, no. There were moments when the acting and singing fell short and there were a few sound mishaps on opening night. But those were minor, especially compared to what this production was: Electrifying and packed with gifted, courageous performers who transported us to another time and place, made us feel deep sorrow and great joy, and sent us out of the theater richer for having seen Arizona Onstage’s “Les Miserables.”