Elements of both French political history and worldwide theater history are currently playing out on stage in South Portland. The Portland Players have opened their new season with a production of “Les Miserables.”
The musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo has had several successful runs on Broadway as well as drawing large audiences to regional and local productions, not to mention its recent star-studded movie version. A fine melding of big ideas and personal stories set to soaring music and with tumultuous action, this show has influenced how we think of musical theater ever since it premiered in 1980.
Calling it “our most ambitious show in decades” on their Facebook page, the venerable Portland Players has assembled a large cast and spared little effort in putting together a very entertaining take on this musical about romance, revolution and redemption. There may be a technical glitch or a strained high note here or there (not many) but this production succeeds in telling its classic story with real feeling.
Zack Handlen takes the lead role of Jean Valjean, a man who rises out of a long prison term served for a minor crime to achieve respectability and even a sort of sainthood as he rescues and raises a young girl in strife-torn 19th-century France. Handlen was in fine vocal form at Sunday’s matinee and established a strong stage presence to center the action among the comings and goings of dozens of actors.
The role of Valjean’s nemesis, police inspector Javert, was ably filled by local veteran Mark Dils who, like Handlen, knows how to shine in the spotlight while still staying true to the movement of the story. His singing comes from his understanding of his character’ role in the overall saga rather than from a stand-back-here’s-my-big-number approach that sometimes is found in lesser productions.
Rachel Henry and David Van Duyne play the young lovers Cosette and Marius and both performed particularly well during a Romeo and Juliet-style balcony scene that provided a tender moment amid all the action and large ensemble passages that often fill the stage.
Michelle Melvin-Perry, unfortunately, had to overcome some problems with the sound system during her early numbers on Sunday. She fared better when her character Fantine returned for the finale. Brie Roche, as Eponine, conveyed her tragic love for Marius with style and Schuyler White stood out as a student leader.
Jason Phillips and Sarah Thurston play the devious Thenardiers who are bent on personal enrichment, no matter the human cost. They made it very hard to hiss their character’s evil ways, however, when they were so entertaining in conveying their plots and squabbles. Choral numbers were highlights throughout but were particularly rousing during the Thenardier’s famous “Master of the House” and its later reprise.
A multi-level, moveable set that is quickly reconfigured to fit various scenes is a plus as are costumes which suggest the general period of the story. At three hours including intermission, the show has a lot to say but provides an impressive succession of stirring moments that draw one in as the personal and political drama builds. It’s a treat to see new and established local performers with the community theater inspired to do so well by this classic show.
Co-directors Michael Donovan and David Delano, set designer Tim Baker, costumer Megan Bremermann and lighting designer Sue Finch are only a few names on a long list of technical people who help to put this big show onstage and bring it all to life.
WHERE: The Portland Players, 420 Cottage Road, South Portland
REVIEWED: Sunday, September 28 (matinee); continues through Oct. 19
TICKETS: $15 to $20
INFO: 207-799-7337; portlandplayers.org