Manatee Players deliver a stunning 'Les Mis'

mclear@bradenton.comAugust 10, 2013 

There are thousands of reasons why community theaters almost never produce "Les Miserables."

It's a gargantuan show with a daunting score. The chances of getting dozens of excellent singers, including some excellent child actors who can sing, all willing to work hard for free are slim.

The show is iconic, and almost everyone who likes musical theater has seen a Broadway tour or the movie and remembers great performances.

Comparisons are inevitable.

The sets and costumes are necessarily elaborate and expensive. They're demanding for designers and would strain the finances of a lot of regional professional companies, let alone community theaters.

In short, artistic and financial disaster are real possibilities.

The Manatee Players chose to stage "Les Mis"

anyway, and the result is astounding.

It's so close to Broadway-quality that anyone, even people who saw the dazzling Manatee Players production of "Miss Saigon" (by the same writers as "Les Mis") that opened the Manatee Performing Arts Center a few months back, will be bowled over.

It's hard to know where to begin praising this production, so perhaps it's best to start by addressing the production's few weaknesses.

Most notably, the cast of more than 50, one of the largest in Manatee Players' history, doesn't include quite enough great voices. There are no bad voices, certainly, but one or two decent-sized roles are inhabited by actors who are not quite up to the vocal rigors of the score.

The opening night performance Thursday was marred by sound problems. Body mics cut out often, and some actors were much louder than others. And there was occasional but noticeable clatter as sets were moved around offstage.

But such shortcomings pale in the glow of this overwhelming production directed by Rick Kerby, the Manatee Players' artistic director.

All the leads are phenomenal, with gorgeous voices and charismatic stage presences. Kenn C. Rapczynski as Jean Valjean wields a tenor voice that's capable of intense power and surprising delicacy, and has a commanding persona.

Bradley Barbaro is a rich and deep Javert. He has a lovely voice, but on "Soliloquy," his character's most well-known song, Barbaro's acting is as beautiful as his singing.

Sarah Cassidy (Fantine) has a lovely voice that enlivens many key moments, and she delivers a poignant reading of "I Dreamed a Dream."

Stephanie Woodman-Costello and David W. Walker are lively as the Thenardiers, the play's only comic characters. (Walker also designed the beautiful and evocative costumes.)

Those are just the most notable of the many fine performances, in roles great and small.

A seven-piece pit orchestra (under musical director Aaron Cassette) is impressive but unobtrusive.

Joseph R. Oshry's lights enhance the show's gloom and triumph, and Kirk Hughes' sets, which eschew the turntable-centered set of the classic Broadway staging, are beautiful.

There's no getting around the fact that the narrative in "Les Mis" is hard to follow. It skips forward in time, and characters who are children in one scene are adults in the next. It can be hard to keep straight.

This production benefits from history - most people have seen the show once or twice and know at least the basics - and from the relative intimacy of the theater.

In a huge space such as Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, which hosted a touring production a few months ago, "Les Mis" can become a spectacle and lose some of its humanity. The 380-seat Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center enhances the audience's connection to the actors and the characters.

No matter how high your expectations, the Manatee Players' "Les Miserables" will not disappoint.

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