HFAC Does Right by a Glorious Les Miserables

The setup:

After Les Miserables became a huge commercial success in the West End of London, a Broadway production opened in March of 1987 and ran until May 2003, closing after 6,680 performances. It was at the time the second-longest Broadway show in history, nominated for 12 Tony Awards and winning eight, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. The rights for local theaters to produce it were just made available in 2013, though a shorter school version was available earlier, and The Houston Family Arts Center is now presenting it.

The execution:

Make no mistake, this is a major production,with a huge cast - 40 plus - and is also a production that sizzles with professional polish and extraordinary talent. The music of course is enthralling, and the voices here do it justice. The book is compelling, and all its raw emotional power is captured by a brilliant cast. The staging is electric, the costumes intriguing, the lighting exceptional, and the energy that cascades from the stage dynamic - here are actors who deliver such eloquence as to make the authors grateful.

Based on Victor Hugo's acclaimed novel, the setting is Paris from 1815 to 1832. The protagonist is Jean Valjean, ex-convict pursued with intractable vigor by Inspector Javert, but Valjean's trajectory includes a look at a prison chain gang, the factories of Paris, criminal activity, the beginning of a revolution, and love stories both unrequited and successful. Though the stage is not large, it is generous enough to successfully encompass even the revolutionary barricades, as well as an elegant wedding ball.

The opening "Work Song" is staged in silhouette behind a scrim, with prison convicts pulling on an endless rope, effectively enhancing the significance of the lyrics and alerting us to the fact that we are in the hands of a director of remarkable talent, Adam W. Delka.

Eric Domuret plays Valjean, in a flawless performance, singing with power and resonance, and with a crystal-clear intelligence making Valjean come alive as we witness his transformation from thief to unselfish benefactor. Taylor Fisher plays the complex role of Javert, sings beautifully, and provides the inner authority to let us see this continuing duel as a match of equals. Jared Barnes as the student Marius, a revolutionary, provides similar vocal strength and is excellent.

Jennifer Stewart plays Fantine, mother of Cosette, and lets us see her vulnerability, desperation, and determination. Laura Knipp plays Cosette as a child, and captures her charm and cheerful endurance under hardship. Hannah Kipp has the major role of Cosette as an adult, sings beautifully, and provides poignance and beauty as required. Nicole Palmer as Eponine finds all the nuances of her role, and tugs at our heartstrings with skill and warmth.

The corrupt married couple, the Thenardiers, are portrayed by Harry Robert Perrin and Lisa Borik, and they could not be better, adding delightful relish to their chicanery, and transforming these roles into major triumphs. Fong Chau is persuasive as a Bishop, and in several other roles, and Ben Granger as Enjolras, the leader of the revolutionaries, brings spirit and fire to his portrayal.

The 11-year old Hannah Hale is excellent as street-wise Gavroche - this is her 17th acting role.

The strength of the book is its emotional power, as humans strive, often against unequal odds, and this production had found all those values, plus an endearing gravitas that is warm rather than forbidding. The evening is filled with remarkable minor details, a tapestry of delights - I will never forget how a ten-year old male child raised his fist convincingly in total solidarity with the revolution.

This is largely a sung-through work, and all the songs are persuasive and evocative, but several will live with you forever, including the powerful "One Day More". The authors of this contemporary masterpiece are Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, with help from others for productions in English.

The very effective lighting design is by the gifted Ron Putterman, the authentic and sometimes witty costumes are by Kristin Knipp, and the effective scenic design by Lisa Garza employs multiple-use open metal platforms. Sound design is by Harry Robert Perrin and musical direction by Sam Brown, and they have done the glorious music justice.

The verdict:

This is a production of such professional distinction and talent that we see clearly why the work is a masterpiece. The brilliant direction of Adam W. Delka and the exceptional cast headed by Eric Domuret in a commanding performance provide an experience of pure, rich, transcending theatrical pleasure. Les Miserables continues through August 3, Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant Road, 281-685-6374,

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Jim Tommaney