This is definitely the theater event of the summer.
And I'm not just saying that because there's not a whole lot going on during Tucson's theater-scarce summer scene. Shoot, it may be the theater event of the year.
Local theater company Arizona Onstage has taken on the enormous task of mounting the epic musical melodrama, Les Miserables. And they've done a damn good job with some impressive Tucson talent. The director, technical staff, orchestra and performers are all Tucsonans. Nobody brought in from Los Angeles or New York. No taped soundtrack. Just a bunch of talented and impressively skilled singers and musicians who might be your neighbors.
It's an almost insanely ambitious—and risky—undertaking, for any usually cash-strapped local company. But artistic director Kevin Johnson is not easily daunted if there's a show he really wants to do. The company generally produces small, intimate musicals, but a couple of years ago Johnson took on Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, and that worked out pretty well. He's wanted to do Les Miz, as it is usually referred to, for a long time but he vowed he wouldn't do it unless he could find the local talent to pull it off. So after holding endless auditions, as well as calling on some of the folks he works with regularly, he was convinced he had the right stuff.
Les Miz is 30-years-old. Actually, that assumes it was born in 1985 when it was first given a production in London. It had actually evolved over several years by French songwriter, Alain Boublil, who says he got the inspiration for turning Victor Hugo's immense novel into music when he saw a production of Oliver. It became a Big Production when Cameron Mackintosh—he of Cats fame—got wind of it. The score, by Claude-Michel Schönberg, and lyrics by Boublil (the English lyrics are by Herbert Kretzmer), with its soaring anthems, tender melodies and soul-searching intensity, tells a complicated story with themes of personal redemption, injustice, and the horrible plight of the underclass in early 19th-century France. It was pretty much panned by critics on both sides of the pond. But theater-goers kept buying tickets and telling their friends to buy tickets until Les Miz became a populist-propelled phenomenon.
Arizona Onstage's production delivers a multi-layered story, told completely in song, with such passion and heart that few of the rough edges undermine its efforts. There are some very fine performances, particularly Kit Runge as Jean Valjean, the man at the center of the tale. His voice is bold and strong when he sings "Who Am I," and tender and sweet when he prayerfully asks that the young soldier Marius be spared in battle in "Bring Him Home." Amy Erbe brings us a sympathetic Fantine, and Erin Anderson as Eponine gives us a heartbreaking "On My Own." Juan Aguirre as Javert, the unbending lawman chasing Valjean, brings an intense baritone to "Stars." Chach Snook gives a knock-out performance as Enjolras, leader of the grassroots uprising. (Many think this story is about the French Revolution, but it concerns a much smaller—and less successful—effort years before.) And the 40 voices of the ensemble deliver powerful and beautifully executed songs like "One Day More" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?"
There's no revolving stage (actually, that has been dispensed with in a new Broadway revival which opened earlier this year) and fancy barricade, but Johnson's and Chris Pankratz's simple and versatile set design allows the sprawling tale plenty of room, although the projections get swallowed up in the lighting. Don Fox's lighting design creatively defines the locales and action. Music director Hank Feldman and his 14-piece orchestra do an outstanding job, and vocal director Elliot Jones does, too.
Fear not, if you are already a fan of Les Miz, you won't be disappointed. If you've never seen the show, you will see a professional-caliber production which will bring you every bit as much heart and soul as the production which won over those first audiences which put the critics in their place.