Nothing miserable about Les Misérables

I knew if I waited long enough, Mark Sands and his band of thespians at Norwich High School would do my favorite musical. Lord knows I’ve sat through enough shows that definitely were not personal favorites all over this county throughout the years (please, no more Rodgers & Hammerstein!); I knew that one day my reward would come.

And here it is, this weekend. Les Misérables – School Edition. Like me, Mr. Sands had been waiting patiently until his stars aligned (literally) and they’d be able tackle this long-running Broadway favorite. And tackle it they have. Sitting through one of the first dress rehearsals earlier this week, I’ve never seen an NHS group more committed to a show, giving it their all even for a largely empty audience. As I said to a friend of mine watching also, “They really sang the *&^% out of that.” Pardon my French.

For the uninitiated, Les Misérables (meaning literally, in French again, “the miserable ones”) is set in early 19th century France, following the sometimes convoluted and always dramatic lives of several characters as they struggle with the themes of life, love, death, revolution and redemption. As the title suggests, there aren’t many happy moments in Les Misérables – but that said, it still is an inspiring and uplifting show with an unforgettable, timeless score.

As you may have read in my preview story yesterday, there’s hardly any spoken dialogue in Les Misérables – it’s essentially an opera, but don’t let that label scare you. Though the lines are lyrical, they’re presented and woven together thematically in such a way that makes the story not only easy to follow, but impossible to resist.

Heading up the NHS cast this weekend is senior Robert Harris as our hapless protagonist, Jean Valjean. He starts out the play as a prisoner, having served 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. Apparently not having learned his lesson, he’s released and proceeds to become a repeat offender with a pair of candlesticks. But he’s not a bad guy; in fact, Les Misérables is a tale largely of Valjean’s redemption, his rise and fall, and rise and fall again.

In the lead role, Harris shoulders a lot of the work here, and does so with ease. His angst (and there’s a lot of it; Valjean never gets a break) is palpable; amidst all the drama, you really want to root for this guy. It’s a heartfelt performance in a difficult role. Matching him on every level is fellow senior Chris Kappel as Javert, the cop who dogs Valjean, Fugitive-style, throughout the play, and the decades. Kappel’s delivery is crisp and calculated, perfect for a character so driven by the letter of the law. His flowing black coat lends to his Vader-esque malevolence, and he manages to cut quite an imposing figure.

Part of the fun for me in doing these reviews every year is watching the kids grow and mature as performers with each show. And oh, how I will miss you, Erin McMahon. When I heard they were staging Les Mis, I knew this Norwich senior would be cast as Mrs. Thenardier, one of the dastardly innkeepers. Needless to say, my prophetic casting came true, and Miss McMahon is a delight in the role – saucy, bombastic and absolutely fearless on stage. And here she’s paired with the equally fearless Matt Robinson as the over-the-top Mr. Thenardier. Matt clearly relishes this comic relief role, and with good reason. Their big number, with the company, is “Master of the House” – it’s a show-stopper.

Come to think of it, there are quite a few show stoppers in Les Misérables. Ethan Steers as Marius and Dillan Smith (I was amazed to hear that voice come out of him) as Enjolras help lead another one in “The People’s Song” at the end of Act I. Like Sands said in my story yesterday, there’s a really good chance of two standing ovations in this one.

Les Misérables isn’t very kind to the girls. They all have a run of bad luck, and each story gets progressively worse. That said, they’ve also got some of the most passionate (and well known) songs in the show. Poor little Cosette (played by Courtney Becker) probably fares the best, shining in “A Heart Full of Love.” Upping the tragic factor is tomboy Eponine (Shannon Richards), whose unrequited love leads her to make more than a few mistakes. Richards’ star moment is, of course, “On My Own.” Perhaps the best-known of Les Mis’ songs, thanks to unlikely British star Susan Boyle, is “I Dreamed a Dream.” On the Norwich stage, Breanna Guiffre literally brings the house down with her passionate portrayal of uber-tragic Fantine. I’d pit her “Dream” against Boyle’s in a heartbeat.

Confession: Sometimes when I say there’s not a bad performance in the lot, that’s hyperbole. Not the case in this weekend’s production. Like I said before, these kids, down to the littlest middle schooler, really give it their all. To see them all come alive in a company number (I love “At The End of the Day,” too) is simply breathtaking. And while most times I’m content with having seen the dress rehearsal for free and writing my little review, this weekend I intend to go back to the high school to see Les Misérables – and pay for it. That’s how much I love this show, and what the Norwich troupe has done with it.

Les Misérables – School Edition is set to be performed in the NHS Auditorium on Friday and Saturday, April 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. with a Sunday, April 11 matinee at 2:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $5 and are now on sale at both The First Edition Book Store and Service Pharmacy in Norwich. Tickets will also be available at the door before each performance.

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