Just before the curtain rose on the matinee performance of “Les Miserables” at Billings Studio Theatre last Sunday, I saw director Gerry Roe. The space seemed woefully small to stage such an enormous production. I asked Mr. Roe how in the world he was going to do it. “Well,” he said, “we didn’t use the boat.”
True, there were no slaves pulling mightily on ropes attached to an ocean-going vessel as we saw in the film, but the land-locked slaves on stage were convincingly weary to the bone with their punishing toil.
Defeat and despair are served up in spades, but are weighted against love and redemption in this classic Victor Hugo novel, adapted for the stage.
As Jean Valjean, Kevin Cates begins his performance with bitterness as a man brutally imprisoned for 19 years after stealing a loaf of bread to feed a dying child. Even on parole he is shunned as a thief and steals again, only to be forgiven and protected by a merciful bishop. With much skill, grace and strong vocal quality, Mr. Cates transforms before our eyes into a man with tenderness and compassion.
As the policeman who hunts Valjean, Steve Zediker is commanding in his role as Javert. He wields his power and intimidation with little effort, backed by his rich voice and impeccable movement.
Without a strong ensemble cast, Les Miserables could implode into three hours of theatrical misery. That is not the case here.
Each performer, some with multiple roles, brings energy and honesty to the stage. Even the youngest cast members, Gracie Day, Seja Foster and Keagan Burpee, exhibit impressive talent and presence among their adult peers.
Mention must also be given to the young adult/teen actresses Amanda Grubbs and Claire Stepanek who, within each of their heart-wrenching roles, are stunning with their depth and clarity of purpose. These young women are key to the story line and embrace their responsibility with professionalism.
“Les Miserables” is not the kind of musical that sends audiences home humming a catchy tune.
But, if I may make a confession, “Master of the House” is still circling my brain. In a much needed moment of comic relief, actors Don Havig and Elizabeth Alexander, backed by the guests at their inn, have so much fun with this scene that it gives the audience a precise moment to come up for air.
Kudos to Director Gerald Roe for the execution of this expansive production. Kudos as well to the fine musicians, actors, set designers and costumers who have contributed their talents to this production that is well worth seeing.
No, Mr. Roe, you did not use the boat. But nobody missed the boat on this one. Nobody.
“Les Miserables” plays through Oct. 5 at the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts.
CORRECTION: "Les Miserables" is at the Billings Studio Theatre, not the NOVA Center.