By Manning Harris
If you follow Atlanta theatre at all, you’ve no doubt heard that Lawrenceville’s beautiful Aurora Theatre is experiencing a record-breaking, standing room only success with their superb production of the mighty “Les Misérables,” running now through Sept. 8. In fact, if you are even considering attending, please stop reading this review right now and get tickets online or call. Then come back.
You may wonder why director Justin Anderson and the powers that be at Aurora chose this time to produce the show, since the film came out late last year. It’s because they are savvy theatre folks, and they could. It seems the rights for “Les Mis” for regional theatres was just released, and Aurora snapped it up. It has proven a wise decision; it’s their biggest hit ever, and the run is not even over.
And I have another idea why it’s proving to be a runaway success: For the first time (certainly in this theatregoer’s experience) in viewing live productions of the show over the years, on Broadway and especially at the venerable Fox, “Les Misérables” has achieved audience intimacy. I can clearly see the faces of Jean Valjean, Javert, Cosette and the rest. This lovely proximity has opened up a whole new avenue of poignance. The Aurora stage is quite large; but the audience size is reasonable (I don’t know their seating capacity, but it’s way, way less than the Fox’s 4,500)!
Of course without the personnel to perform this “Show of Shows,” as a 1987 Newsweek cover story called it, no theatre of any size would suffice. The Aurora has the personnel; they’ve got to, for this is a three hour “sung through” (like an opera) musical play that demands actors who can sing well, musicians who can play, and a highly skilled technical crew, such as set designer Phil Male.
Let’s give credit to the shows creators: the classic novel by Victor Hugo, music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, and original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel.
In the program, Aurora’s producers, Anthony P. Rodriguez and Ann-Carol Spence quote from Victor Hugo’s preface to his book: “So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” As I write these words, chaos, revolution, and death are running rampant in Egypt. So there’ll be no discussion here of the relevance of “Les Misérables.”
The plot in brief: In France in 1815 Jean Valjean (Bryant Smith) steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child and is imprisoned for 19 years. He escapes and starts life anew, relentlessly pursued by the “justice and law” obsessed Javert (Kevin Harry). If you’re going to the show for the first time, brush up on the plot—that’s what Google is for.
Mr. Smith is a superb Jean Valjean; his acting and singing are impeccable. Mr. Harry is excellent in what I’ve always thought is a fairly thankless role: Javert is a deeply unhappy man. I must mention Leslie Bellair as Eponine (“On My Own”); when she sings, it’s with no apparent effort. She simply opens her mouth and shares her emotions. You suddenly realize she is singing and sounds wonderful. I think this is called talent.
Director Justin Anderson, who’s clearly been inspired by his gargantuan task, has assembled a top notch cast: the Bishop, Shane Desmond-Williams; Fantine, an excellent Natasha Drena; the comic/evil Thénardiers, Marcie Millard (a stitch!) and Anthony P. Rodriguez; Marius, a fine Michael Stiggers; Cosette, a lovely Kelly Chapin Schmidt; Enjolras, Lowrey Brown. I’m out of room! This cast is huge and divinely talented. Production staff, you know who you are; they’re in the program! Thank you. I
In the middle of summer Atlanta’s suddenly been blessed with “Les Mis” and “Hair” and “The Producers.” Are we becoming New York? See “Les Miserables.” For Intowners, it is definitely worth the short drive north for this fantastic production.
For tickets and information, visit auroratheatre.com.