By Bill Moss for the Hendersonville Lighting
Could the Playhouse deliver so big a Broadway show on this performance space, limited in size vertically and horizontally? Could the Playhouse deliver the rich orchestral sound needed to back the soaring vocals? Could it present a show well known by legions from stage and cinema in a way that equals the grandness, depth and passion that so moving a story deserves?
Yes, yes and yes.
To say that the Playhouse has done it again does not go quite far enough. The 61-year-old State Theatre of North Carolina has not in our memory put on a show that has strung together so many top quality performances of so many songs — 27 — for as long — three hours and four minutes.
The well-known adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic tells the story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean and his pursuer, the policeman Javert, against the background of a working class uprising in Paris — 1815 to 1832. A backdrop of such privation and cruelty demands of its cast a transcendent performance, and the theatre audience is lucky that the actors on stage at Flat Rock have delivered exactly that.
Not Broadway Lite
Rob Evan as Valjean, Josh Davis as Javert, Erin Mosher as Fantine, Charles Brady as Marius and Carolann Sanita as Cosette debut or return to the Playhouse stage with extensive Broadway credits. Evan has performed this leading role on Broadway, which is one big reason that the Playhouse's version does not look or sound like Broadway Lite.
A former football walk-on at the University of Georgia, Evan is a singer with an appealing physical heft and amazing range and power that perfectly suits the iconic stage role. (Among his many vocal credits, he's a member of the big-selling rock band the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and has sung with more than 30 symphonies worldwide.) Evan's "Bring Him Home" in the second act is as moving as any number the Playhouse audience will see this summer. The man can sing hard and he can sing soft. (Evan's presence here earned the Playhouse a nod in Playbill.com, which reported on Thursday that he was starring in "Les Miz" on the Flat Rock stage.)
Mosher nails it with "I Dreamed a Dream," the despairing lament about her tough life — talk about a bunch of bad breaks! — and her hope that she can escape the darkness. The operatic Carolann Sanita shines as Cosette.
It is because "Les Miz" brings us so low that it can lift us high.
Led by Charlie Brady as Marius and Brett Stoelker as Enjolras, the ensemble anthems of the student rebels — "Red and Black" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?" — are full-stage pieces that are both musically powerful and visually striking. One other benefit of staging "Les Miz" is the opportunity to showcase the 2013 apprentice talent of Mr. Farquhar's Vagabond School of the Drama. What young actor would not be thrilled to be a part of a production as soaring as this?
Preston Dyar and 25-year Playhouse veteran Linda Edwards are entertaining (and boo-hiss worthy) as the unscrupulous Mssr. and Madame Thenardier.
Set and lighting also star
Act II is full of death, and what a fine job Dennis Maulden has done in creating death's set.
The veteran scenic designer, who I believe is the longest serving member of the company directly connected to founder Robroy Farquhar, is wearing out the phrase here in the Lightning of having topped himself but I know no other way to express it. I stopped counting the number of scene changes but it seemed this show required a new set for every one of its 27 songs. With no theater fly, that's an engineering feat.
A Playhouse board member told me that the creative team puzzled over how to portray the climactic barricade scene. Maulden has pulled it off, in spades. The rebels doomed defense at the barricade is the most action-packed of all scenes, and the frozen pose of the dead fighters is a monument to the flexibility of young bodies. Young Clarke MacDonald is given the best death dance of all, and pulls it off with discipline and precise timing.
As the young Cossette, Samantha Penny does a fine job singing the signature "Castle on a Cloud." (Her twin sister Clancy alternates in the role. They're rising fifth graders at Hendersonville Elementary School.)
The stage is lighted overhead instead of with spotlights from the back of the house, and Stephen Terry deserves a hand for how creatively he has used the technique.
The upstairs pit orchestra conducted by Michael Sebastian includes three keyboards, giving the musicians the ability to make the board and deep sound the musical demands.
Vincent Marini, the artistic director of the Playhouse and director of the show, jokingly said in his introduction that "we've been working on this show for 16 years." Credit to him for the vision to dream it and the ambition to stage it.
"Les Miserables" makes us first know and then appreciate and then love the characters who make up the story. The story giveth, the story taketh away. Most of them die. Yet even the villainous Javert we come to admire for his moral transformation. He has a heart after all, for Valjean breaks it — not with force but with mercy.
It's a helluva story, carrying us low and raising us high, not because the heroes triumph but because they give us the gift of the higher truth that's at the heart of all great art.
A full house enjoyed the show on opening night Saturday, and it was plain to see that after three hours of an amazing theater experience the Flat Rock Playhouse patrons could not to wait to leap to their feet in grateful appreciation.