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Summer Theatre puts on 4-star show

Mon., Aug. 11, 2008

The question: Would the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre be able to pull off “Les Miserables,” a musical previously seen mainly on multimillion-dollar tours?

This verdict: Why would we have doubted it?

The nearly packed house answered the question with an instant standing ovation and shouts of “bravo!” a word you hear at the symphony, but rarely at a summer theater. The woman sitting in front of me answered it in her own way, by blubbering her way through what looked like an entire box of tissues – and that was just during the final song.

In terms of production values, I’m not going to pretend that the Summer Theatre’s version matched the many national touring versions I’ve seen. This version is consistently just a half-notch below. However, that was both inevitable and surprisingly unimportant.

Let me put it this way: Of course, the CdA Summer Theatre cannot afford the expensive hydraulics to dramatically lower the barricades onto the stage. But hydraulics are at about No. 21 on the list of things that make “Les Miz” great – way below heart, intelligence and powerful music.

This version, directed with great aplomb by Kirk Mouser, himself a veteran of the national tours, has all three of the above. It also has some outstanding performances from both national and local actors.

The two actors in the main male roles, Jean Valjean and Javert, are easily of national touring quality, which is no surprise because both have been on the national tours. Douglas Webster’s Jean Valjean is almost a frighteningly formidable presence in his brutish early scenes, with shaggy hair and primitive intensity.

This only makes his conversion into the profoundly decent man of the middle and latter parts of the show even more moving. One character calls Jean Valjean a “saint,” and I think few would demur. Webster has the voice and commanding presence to deliver all of Valjean’s big songs, with the heartbreakingly delicate “Bring Him Home” as the climax.

Even more commanding was Geoffrey Blaisdell as the implacable and relentless Javert, a police inspector who tracks Valjean over the decades for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread. Blaisdell is tall and Lincolnesque in appearance, and his looming quality was artfully heightened by costume designer Judith McGiveney’s black uniform topped by a massive Bonaparte-like black hat. Blaisdell’s deep and resonant rendition of “Stars,” Javert’s declaration of obsession, was one of the show’s undisputed high points.

Possibly even more satisfying, as a longtime CdA Summer Theatre observer, was seeing how well the local talent rose to the challenge of this brilliant musical. We’ve watched Coeur d’Alene’s own Darcy Wright work her way up through many childhood and ingénue roles over the past 10-plus years. With her exceptional performance as Eponine, we have now witnessed Wright’s full flowering as an artist. Her version of “On My Own” was flawless; she is easily near the top of the list of the Eponines I have seen.

The other main women’s roles were beautifully handled by Krista Kubicek as Fantine and Krystle Armstrong as the adult Cosette.

Roger Welch, the theater’s artistic director, and Leslie Rhodes really sunk their blacked-out teeth into the roles of Madam and Monsieur Thenardier. I would have liked them to slow down “Master of the House” just a touch so that they could really relish the bad puns and bad behavior.

The two “little people,” in the words of the song, deserve plenty of credit as well. Alex Goss-Goal was a tough and endearing Gavroche, and Chloe Rhodes delivered a pensive and effecting version of “Castle on a Cloud” as the young Cosette.

The supporting cast and ensemble were fine as well, but this is one show in which the technical crew deserves even more credit. Set designer Michael McGiveney pulled off a minor miracle here, re-creating the monumental sets and effects to a surprising degree. The turntable stage, the revolving barricade, the bridge-jump scene, the underground Paris scene – they all came off flawlessly on opening night, and they all contributed to the drama and the mood.

And then there’s the music. The 18-piece pit orchestra, directed by Steven Dahlke, uses the full orchestration. It sounded fuller and better than what we are used to in the touring versions. In fact, the Summer Theatre’s orchestra is seven musicians bigger than the orchestra in London’s current West End production.

As for the show itself, it’s one of the most popular and critically acclaimed of all time for good reasons. I don’t have space to go into them all, but suffice to say that “Les Miz” is the rare musical that is as deeply satisfying to the head as it is to the heart. It will make you laugh, make you cry and make you think.

It is, without a doubt, my favorite musical ever. The Summer Theatre production did nothing but cement that opinion.

Meanwhile, the Summer Theatre appears undaunted by such challenges. Saturday night, they announced that in 2009 they will do “Miss Saigon” – a musical by the “Les Miz” writing team that includes an onstage helicopter launch.

“Les Miserables” continues through Aug. 23. Call (800) 4-CDATIX.


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