As if on cue, the fading summer sun sank behind the backdrop of the Woodminster Amphitheater in Oakland last Friday, dimming the lights so to speak, and leaving behind a delightfully dark and chilly evening to compliment the opening night performance of Producers Associates’ summer production of “Les Misérables.”
“Les Misérables” originated as a British pop opera that first opened in its current form (music by Claude-Michel Schönberg) in London’s West End in 1985 to mostly negative reviews. However, audiences disagreed with critics, and the show was a box office success, later gaining eight Tony Awards and and a 2012 film adaptation that received an Academy Award nom for Best Picture.
Based on the Victor Hugo classic set in 1815 France, the musical follows Jean Valjean (Jerry Lee) at the moment he is released after a 19-year prison sentence. Rejected by society because he is a convict, Valjean breaks parole to begin a new life and find redemption by raising his adopted daughter, Cosette (Jennifer Mitchell, Little Cosette is played by Emily Kessel). However, Valjean’s past nips at his heels. Inspector Javert (Anthony Rudolph), the guard who originally released Valjean, swears that he will recapture him at any cost, and consequently pursues him across the years until both mens’ worlds teeter close to collapse on the eve of Paris’ June Rebellion.
Between the musical’s history and story scale, any production of “Les Mis” must work hard to live up to such a grand legacy. Unfortunately the performance of the opening song through several of the early scenes felt overly rushed. This was, perhaps, an attempt to shorten the approximately 3-hour run-time for practical reasons, but it felt palpably uncomfortable.
There were also a few technical difficulties along the way, but these are likely to work themselves out in future performances. Another disconcerting aspect was the choreography, which—especially the marching during “One Day More”—seemed awkwardly wooden for such an impassioned scene.
However, with the entrance of Monsieur and Madame Thenardier (Stewart Lyle and Dyan McBride) and the ensemble’s performance of “Master of the House,” the whole performance slowed down and filled out immensely. The talent of each actor in his or her role, the bold presence of a live pit orchestra and the flexibility and skill of the ensemble built to an impressive and gratifying finish.
To this untrained ear at least, the vocal performances were all surprisingly strong. In community theater productions you can usually count on the leads to be strong vocalists with a more variable chorus, but here, the vocals were fantastic across the board, managing both the spirited “One Day More” and softer “Days Gone By” scenes with equal expertise.
Rudolph’s performance of Javert—from sturdy voice to his resolute demeanor—was compelling throughout. The Thérnadiers also made a lively duo who were lucky enough to wear a few of the most exciting costumes, particularly their hot pink and green party outfits which resembled exotic cocktails. Finally, though it is perhaps an inevitability due to the design of his character, Zell Steele Morrow, who plays Gavroche, a young street urchin, and the other child cast members, swooped in and stole the show with enthusiasm and spunk.
At the end of the day, this production has all the elements necessary to make a fantastic run this summer. The talent, venue, innovative set and orchestral performers all contribute to a rich overall performance that should only need a bit of sanding along its rougher edges to fill any empty chairs in the theater.
“Les Miserables” will be playing at the Woodminster Amphitheater in Oakland until July 20.