Fort Worth — Turns out, seeing last year’s Mad Max re-boot of Les Misérables at the Dallas Theater Center—vastly different and entertaining—was a theatrical palate cleanser, too, setting us up to appreciate the passionate charm of the original show, puffy shirts and all.
Casa Mañana is doing a rousing, make-you-cry Les Misérables this week, straight up and no chaser—and though this might not be the plug of a PR flack’s dreams, it’s the most clearly articulated version of this musical I’ve ever seen. Whatever elements went into that—effort by the actors and director Tim Bennett, of course, but also music director James Cunningham’s masterful job of not overwhelming the singers, and Casa’s “close up” seating configuration—it’s terribly important that the audience understand every word in this all-singing show. In this production they do, and audiences should have no trouble understanding every plot point and interaction. No small feat.
Michael Hunsaker brings an impressive, fill-the-Dome voice to the role of prisoner Jean Valjean, whose cruel sentence for stealing bread leaves him a bitter man—until he is pulled toward redemption by a series of fateful encounters. Prisoner 24601 is a wild, physically intimidating presence in the early scenes, which makes his transformation into “a better man” all the more striking. Valjean’s warmth and passion is opposed by the iron intensity of the police inspector Javert (David McDonald giving a fine read of this very tricky role). They are mirror images: each man is driven by commitment to a higher law—Valjean’s leading to love and human connection, Javert’s to a desperate isolation. The demanding role of Valjean is a singer-actor’s Everest, in many ways—and Hunsaker climbs higher and higher with every scene.
Casa has pulled in plenty of top-notch talent from New York and the world of national touring companies. Mary Michael Patterson, a former Casa Kid, returns from Broadway—where she played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera—to play a fetching and beautifully voiced Cosette. Lewisville native Stephanie Umoh’s rich voice and warmth make her a memorable Fantine. Cheryl Allison (just seen at Casa in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story) stays on to play a vinegar-voiced Madame Thenardier, resplendent in Cat Petty-Rogers’ mile-high red wig. Ian Patrick Gibb is genuine and open-hearted as Marius, Cosette’s young lover—and his tenor voice soars. His beautiful singing is matched by Daniel Rowan as rebel leader Enjolras. Kirstin Tucker sings with depth and feeling, but seems a tad too perky at times for the dark role of Eponine; and James Zannelli is amusing as innkeeper Thenardier, though this is the one instance where it feels as if orchestra volume is stomping on his punchlines.
It’s no wonder the male-female ensemble sounds great: it’s a stack-up of some of North Texas’ finest musical theater folks. To just name a few, there’s red-headed Daron Cockerell, last seen hereabouts starring in Lyric Stage’s Annie Get Your Gun; Martin Antonio Guerra, whose huge voice was the best thing about Artes de la Rosa’s recent Man of La Mancha; and Christopher Deaton, who starred memorably as Ulysses in Lyric Stage’s revival of The Golden Apple last year. What’s more, some of the youngest ensemble members are area high school stars, winners of Betty Buckley or Dallas Summer Musicals awards for their performances.
The kids make their mark, too. Young Cosette is sweetly sung by Madeline Yarbrough in a delightfully natural debut. And Stephen Newton, the little ball of fire who made the company’s “junior” production of How I Became a Pirate so fresh and funny last year, is onboard again as Gavroche, the “pup” who braves the barricades and speaks truth to power.
Adam Koch’s tarnished-metal set design, crossed by heavy wooden beams at center stage, is both handsome and flexible, and Samuel Rushen’s lighting highlights action and guides us through the plot. One memorable moment: Valjean, spotlit by a wide cone of light, is under unbearable pressure to make a life-changing decision. As he agonizes, the cone of light narrows until he has no wiggle room left—and he makes his choice. Tammy Spencer’s costumes, whether lush or tattered, have a muted beauty—and the flashes and sounds of the eventual battle are impressively done. And through it all, director/choreographer Bennett keeps the action flowing at a galloping, cinematic pace.
Casa president Wally Jones asked the audience to raise a hand if this was their first time seeing Les Miz—more than a few, it seems. But whether this is your 12th viewing or your first, Casa Mañana’s production, full of energy and gorgeously sung, should leave you happy.