Les Not-So-Miserables

Being heralded as the world’s most popular musical comes with a certain cost. ‘Les Miserables’ – like ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Cats’ – has proven its worth worldwide since it first opened almost three decades ago, and also became a film that got a number of Oscar nods last year. As one of the British blockbusters of the 80’s, it was saddled with the reputation of the others as featuring spectacle and production cost over lasting substance. In the ensuing years, the musical proved the ‘lasting’ part, but the hum-drum lyrics and sometimes convoluted story-line never quite pushed it into the critically-lauded category. Those shortcomings, however, haven’t been able to touch the moving melodies of the music – and I’ve always contended that this is the real secret to the enduring appeal of the musical. That music remains intact here, taking pride of place in the production currently staging its glorious coup at the Cohoes Music Hall.

By this point in its decade-plus tenure, the Cohoes Music Hall has nothing left to prove. They have done old-fashioned traditional musicals to perfection (‘Hello Dolly!‘, ‘The Pirates of Penzance‘ and ‘Cabaret‘ ) and brought renewed vigor to the newer (now older) hits like ‘Cats‘ and ‘Sunset Boulevard‘. ‘Les Miserables’, with its voluminous cast and thundering ensemble numbers might have proved a formidable challenge, but under the direction of Jim Charles, cast and crew rise to the occasion.

Without a fifty-piece orchestra, or even amplification for that matter, the players here produce such powerful effect that it seems sometimes as if they are multiplying – so rich and full are the voices, so expansive the instrumentation. The musical direction of Charlotte Evans, and the addition of a few extra members in the orchestra pit, make such epic grandeur possible. Ms. Evans is the unsung star of this show, deftly keeping a steady pace of non-stop music, eliciting bombast when necessary and quieter jewels that still sparkle.

As for the cast, Austin Riley Green is an adequate Jean Valjean, but it’s his adversary Javert, as played by Jim Charles (doing double duty as leading player and director), who provided the stoic, yet emotional, heft of the show. This was my first time seeing Mr. Charles in a lead role at the theater (how is that even possible?) and he was a highlight of this production. As the noble-but-villain-by-default Javert, he’s saddled with the difficult role of being the unyielding, yet ultimately self-defeating, bearer of strict justice. Not once does he sway from his course, even in the face of convincing moral ambiguity, and the usually gregarious Mr. Charles never breaks stride in this convincingly powerful turn.

As I said, the power of this show lies within its music. All of its greatest and most well-known songs are represented well here, including ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ and ‘On My Own’, but it’s the ensemble pieces that rouse the most – from the inspiring ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ to the ‘One Day More’ Act I closing montage that ties all the characters and their musical motifs together into one amazing production number.

A musical about the bloody French Revolution will always sound odd on paper, but when set to music like this – and put on with the professional panache of the players here – it works like magic.

‘Les Miserables’ runs at the Cohoes Music Hall through October 13, 2013. 

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