Cedar City • In his director's notes for Utah Shakespeare Festival's production of "Les Misérables," Brad Carroll describes Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's sprawling musical as "a story of human redemption played against a vast backdrop of violence and upheaval."
This simple sentence may hold the key to the enduring popularity of "Les Mis" and explain why audiences return to see it again and again. The show effectively juxtaposes a small, personal story against the sweeping, tumultuous history of France during one of its most chaotic periods.
One thing that makes this production work so well is the deft way it balances the intimacy of Jean Valjean's story with the spectacle of the historical events that frame it. That balance is maintained by the eloquence and power of the performances and the clarity of Carroll's stage pictures as he moves the large cast around.
Jean Valjean and Javert, the police inspector, are set against each other from the play's first scene, an archetypal conflict between mercy and justice, compassion and duty. Valjean's protestation of "I'm a man, no worse than any man" consistently collides with Javert's rigid philosophy of "honest work, just rewardthat's the way to serve the Lord" in a society where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is a yawning chasm.
J. Michael Bailey seems born to play Valjean: a big man with a big voice. Yet he is capable of delicacy and tenderness that are emotionally piercing in songs like "Bring Him Home," his prayer for Marius at the barricade, whose melody is echoed in his final affirmation: "To love another person is to see the face of God." As Javert, Brian Vaughn's singing voice has gathered impressive strength since last season's "The Music Man," and he manages to inject both complexity and humanity into his portrait of a character often portrayed as a dimensionless villain.
In Fantine, Valjean recognizes someone wholike himselfis forced to live on the fringes of society. Melinda Pfundstein's portrayal is an effective mix of loyalty to her child, gritty determination, and innocence that remains untainted by the corruption around her. And her singing is so clear you can hear every word, a testimony to Richard Carsey's musical direction.
Max Robinson and Kymberly Mellen cavort cunningly as the Thenardiers, enterprising opportunists in a dog-eat-dog world. Their reappearance at Marius and Cozette's wedding is a comic high point. Barbara Jo Bednarczuk's sweet voice gives Eponine a wistful loneliness that is tender and touching in "On My Own." Joey DeBenedetto's Enjolras is a fiery, charismatic student leader, and Tina Scariano and Cody Craven create an attractive Cozette and Marius.
Aided by Jaymi Lee Smith's moody lighting that pinpoints characters in pools of liquid light, director Carroll positions individuals and couples, especially in group scenes, so we always know where to look. Jo Winiarski's slightly askew set with its broken arches, dark alcoves and balconies, and giant hodgepodge of a barricade intensifies the atmosphere of a world in crisis. Carroll's choice to revolve the barricade and have women and children clear it from the stage evocatively communicates the cost of battle. K. L. Alberts' period costumes range impressively from elegant for the rich to garish for the Thenardiers and dark and simple for the townspeople. The students' red sashes are a colorful touch.
The intimacy and clarity of this production affirm that you don't need a huge theater and a Broadway cast to convey the power and poignancy of "Les Mis."
Bottom line • Utah Shakespeare Festival's production of "Les Misérables" captures both its intimacy and its epic sweep through impressive performances and incisive direction.
When » Through Sept. 1; shows Monday-Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Will resume Sept. 7-Oct. 19. Check festival website for exact dates and times.
Where » Randall L. Jones Theatre on the campus of Southern Utah State University, 315 W. Center St., Cedar City.
Info » Tickets $32-$73; visit www.bard.org or call 800-PLAYTIX or 435-586-7878.
Running time • Three hours (including an intermission)