Few musicals have proven to be as divisive as “Les Miserables” has over the years. For all those who love it, travel around the world to see it, hum the lyrics in their sleep or have their “I Dreamed a Dream” koozies, there’s a gaggle of folks who think it’s overrated, a three-hour much ado about a loaf of bread. It doesn’t get everything right, but even those who are hard on the Tony Award winner will have to admit that Aurora Theatre has staged an eager-to-please, wonderfully sung production.
Running through September 8 as Aurora’s 18th season opener, this version of the epic musical is certainly ambitious, the largest show that the Lawrenceville company has ever staged. It’s based, of course, on the Victor Hugo novel, with characters well known by now. In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean (Bryant Smith) is a free man after nearly two decades in prison. Vowing to rebuild his life, he breaks parole, moves on and becomes a factory owner. There he meets Fantine (Natasha Drena), who is dismissed from her job after it’s discovered she has an illegitimate daughter. After Fantine turns to prostitution and eventually dies, Valjean promises to take care of her daughter, Cosette (played as a young woman by Kelly Chapin Schmidt). Hot on Valjean’s trail, though, is Javert (Kevin Harry), hell-bent on arresting the ex-convict.
This version of “Les Miserables” looks and sounds amazing. Phil Male’s set is exquisite, making use of almost every inch of the Aurora stage, while Ann-Carol Pence (Aurora’s associate producer and music director) and her band do an exemplary job handling the tricky score, with more than 30 numbers altogether. Director Justin Anderson has assembled a tight cast. The challenge with “Les Mis,” though, is finding performers who can meet the vocal demands of the material and still fill the characters’ shoes. Unfortunately, some come off better here than others.
Like most everyone onstage, Harry has a majestic voice, possibly one of the sharpest in the cast. But he lacks presence; whatever tension there should be between his Javert and Valjean is missing from their very first moment together. And it throws their scenes out of whack.
Drena is an extraordinary musical theater actress, one who can take a song and enliven it effortlessly. She can definitely sing the role of Fantine, but she tends to Hathaway it up and overdo her signature “I Dreamed a Dream” bit. She is directed to go over the top when a subtle take would have been preferable. It’s not weak, just not the kind of moment the performer is capable of.
Luckily, Smith is a fine, commanding Valjean, with a range that might surprise those familiar only with his work in Aurora’s “Clyde ‘n Bonnie: A Folktale.” He ages effectively and has a standout moment with “Bring Him Home.” All around Smith is other talent — Leslie Bellair as Eponine sings a beautiful rendition of “On My Own,” while Marius (Michael Stiggers) has a mournful “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” The two join forces with Cosette for a potent “A Heart Full of Love.” When the entire ensemble comes together, the numbers mostly all click.
In comic relief, Anthony Rodriguez (Aurora’s artistic director) and Marcie Millard are well matched as the Thénardiers, the innkeeper parents of Eponine. Rodriguez springs around the stage with physical abandon, and he and Millard click as a pair.
As a director, Anderson holds it together quite efficiently, but this is a project that occasionally feels out of his reach. This scaled-down take of “Les Mis” is effective in creating intimacy with the characters, but at other times it proves small. The battle sequences, in particular, lack the grandeur needed. Javert’s suicide scene, too, should be epic and troubling, and here it feels almost trivial.
On the heels of its triumphant “Clyde ‘n Bonnie” last season, it’s great to see Aurora tackle something this huge. When given the chance to stage a regional version, the company hasn’t backed down. Ultimately, its “Les Miserables” isn’t quite as fresh or unexpected as “Clyde ‘n Bonnie,” or as entertaining. But when the music here takes over, it’s hard not to be sucked in.