Heartfelt performances, fine vocals mark revival of ‘Les Miserables’

Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza), who’s being detained by two local constables (Derryck Menard and Emerson Elias) in this scene from Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza), who’s being detained by two local constables (Derryck Menard and Emerson Elias) in this scene from Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

As the familiar opening strains of Les Miserables filled the air, I held my breath. Having seen the blockbuster musical at least four times (including the 2012 movie), I knew how much depended on the actor playing Jean Valjean.

Would he have a voice powerful enough to carry off the demanding part? Would he have enough acting chops to make us care about the put-upon French fugitive?

But as soon as Bill Hafner sang Valjean’s first few notes, I began to relax. Hafner not only has an exceptional voice, but he’s able to project the combination of nobility and humility that makes Valjean such an appealing hero.

And Hafner is far from the only talent who’s up to the Les Miz challenge. Director David R. Bahgat and his cast and crew have created something remarkable on the JCC stage. Every performance, every lighting effect, every costume contributes to an experience that builds to one emotional climax after another.

Set in the early 19th century, the Claude Michel Schonberg/Alain Boublil/Jeffrey Hatcher musical focuses on Valjean’s attempt to remake and redeem himself after serving years at hard labor for the petty crime of stealing a loaf of bread. When he unknowingly contributes to the downfall of a single mother named Fantine, he takes on a new responsibility as the guardian of her young daughter, Cosette.

Meanwhile, he’s constantly forced to be on the lookout for Javert, a police officer who’s determined to bring him to justice for violating his parole. But that doesn’t stop him from becoming entangled with young idealists who are determined to launch a revolution.

Besides Hafner, many cast members give affecting performances in this sung-through musical. They include:

• Melissa Muguruza as Fantine
• Violet Hicks (alternating with Sigal Judd) as her young daughter, Cosette
• Amy Rittberger as the grown Cosette
• Madeline Bolzenius as the lovelorn Eponine

Eponine’s disreputable parents, the Thenardiers, are deliciously played by Mark Schuliger and Mary Sink. Their appearances, especially the rousing number Master of the House, give the tragedy-prone musical a few welcome moments of comic relief.

Moments of romantic relief arise after the grown Cosette falls for young revolutionary Marius (Elisha Beachy), leading to such beautiful ballads as A Heart Full of Love. But this subplot, too, has a tragic element, as it dooms Eponine’s own feelings for Marius, as expressed in her heart-rending lament On My Own.

Marius’s fellow revolutionaries include leader Enjolras (Jay Rittberger) and a plucky street urchin named Gavroche (Yaakov Newman). Their anthems, including Do You Hear the People Sing?, are as glorious as ever, but they take on a touching note of pathos in this production. That’s because the performances and even director Bahgat’s costume designs suggest that Enjolras and his followers are really just idealistic “schoolboys,” as Javert derisively calls them.

As for Javert, Scott Green plays him with the ramrod posture of a man who’s unable to see beyond his narrow interpretation of right and wrong. Green mostly meets the role’s vocal needs, but his voice occasionally showed signs of strain at the matinee I attended.

Les Miz fans know that Javert’s final exit is a challenge for a semiprofessional troupe like Gallery Players. Fortunately, Bahgat handles it with creativity and dramatic flair—qualities that mark the entire production.

As I said in the beginning, much rides on Jean Valjean’s broad shoulders, and actor Hafner never disappoints. His rendition of the difficult Act 2 solo Bring Him Home is simply the highpoint of a triumphant lead performance.

But there is so much else that contributes to the show’s success, including Jon Baggs’s scenery and Jarod Wilson’s light and sound design.

Yes, there are minor problems: the odd sour note from the band, a few voices that are under-amplified. None of these detract from the show’s ability to pull us into a musical that retains its ability to move us even after multiple viewings.

At its best, Les Miserables is a mesmerizing experience. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, this is Les Miserables at its best.

Gallery Players will present Les Miserables through March 29 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25 ($20 JCC members), $20 ages 60-plus ($18 JCC members), $15 students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

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One-night stands and recalcitrant cabbies

Nick Lingnofski, Geoffrey Nelson, Colleen Dunne and Stephen Woosley (clockwise from top left) appear in The Collection, one of four works featured in On the Edge (photo by Julia Stonerook)
Nick Lingnofski, Geoffrey Nelson, Colleen Dunne and Stephen Woosley (clockwise from top left) appear in The Collection, one of four works featured in On the Edge (photo by Julia Stonerook)

By Richard Ades

Columbus thespian Katherine Burkman is continuing her love affair with Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

Her former group, Women at Play, presented several works by the playwrights when it was active around the turn of the millennium. And now Burkman has made them the focus of a Wild Women Writing show called On the Edge.

Co-presented by Short North Stage, the program consists of an hour-long one-act and two shorter pieces by Pinter, as well as a one-woman play by Beckett. It’s a pleasantly puzzling way to spend an afternoon or evening.

The most rewarding work is the longest, Pinter’s The Collection. The play delves into the power struggle that grows out of an alleged episode of marital infidelity.

James (Stephen Woosley) accuses Bill (Nick Lingnofski) of having a one-night stand with his wife, Stella (Colleen Dunne). Bill denies it ever happened and tries to keep the whole matter from his older lover and benefactor, Harry (Geoffrey Nelson).

Working under Burkman’s direction, the entire cast performs ably. Woosley exudes menace as the accusatory James, while Lingnofski’s Bill responds with oily obfuscation. One of the piece’s joys is seeing Nelson’s Harry finally take charge of the situation after being consigned to the sidelines for much of the running time.

Oddly, the piece is performed with American accents even though the dialogue places the action firmly in the UK. But that’s a distraction only when a character lets loose with a Briticism such as “old chap” or “bollocks.”

Also performed in Americanese, though it’s obviously set in London, is Victoria Station. It’s the comic tale of a taxi dispatcher (David Fawcett) who tries to send a maddeningly obtuse driver (Lingnofski) to the titular railway terminal.

Much of the piece resembles a low-key version of the kind of absurd comic sketches Monty Python specialized in. (Substitute “dead parrot” for “Victoria Station” and you’ll see what I mean.) The contrast between Fawcett’s increasingly frustrated dispatcher and Lingnofski’s uncooperative cabbie is good for several chuckles, but the piece’s darker elements might work better if the latter came off as something more than a blissed-out ignoramus.

Burkman herself takes the stage in Rockaby, the show’s one contribution by Beckett. Much like the playwright’s Krapp’s Last Tape, it consists of the interplay between an elderly character and that character’s recorded voice.

The situation, however, is far simpler. Rather than reviewing her life, the old woman is simply trying to lull herself to sleep (or something more permanent) by listening to a series of repetitive recordings. Working under Ken Pearlman’s direction, Burkman delivers a portrayal effectively tinged with exhaustion and regret.

After all the power plays, frustrations and anguish of the previous works, Pinter’s Night ends the program on an entirely different note. Susie Gerald and Fawcett offer a tender enactment of an older couple’s attempt to agree on the details of their first meeting.

It’s a short and unexpectedly sweet conclusion to an engrossing visit with two of the last century’s most celebrated playwrights.

Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage will present On the Edge through March 15 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20. Contact: shortnorthstage.org.

Shadowbox, JAG collaborate on joyful Cocker tribute

Shadowbox Live is setting aside most of its regular shows this week for its tribute to Joe Cocker, Mad Dog and Englishman
Shadowbox Live is setting aside most of its regular shows this week for A Tribute to Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman

By Richard Ades

Stev Guyer never attended Joe Cocker’s 1969-71 tour, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, but he saw a related documentary. Speaking on the opening night of Shadowbox Live’s new Cocker tribute show, the troupe’s executive producer said he took a lesson from the film that has shaped his thinking ever since.

The lesson: Performing is all about “the joy of doing the thing.”

That philosophy comes across in A Tribute to Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman. A departure from Shadowbox’s usual variety format, the show fills the entire front of the theater with singers and musicians, including four brass players borrowed from the Jazz Arts Group. Together, they pump out rock and blues with so much joy that the event could almost be mistaken for a religious revival meeting.

One tipoff that it isn’t: Rather than cajoling us to come to Jesus, the gospel-style chorus issues a more earthly invitation: Let’s Go Get Stoned. Really, though, who needs drugs when Cocker’s versions of tunes by the Beatles and others offer a natural high?

Honky Tonk Woman, Feelin’ Alright, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window: The first act alone is blessed with so many up-tempo, driving delights that the average viewer may well be exhausted by intermission. It comes as a relief that Shadowbox wisely starts Act 2 off on a more restrained note.

Halfway through the first act, the show includes a couple of numbers popularized not by Cocker, but by singer-songwriter Leon Russell. Before JT Walker III launches into a falsetto-spiced version of Tight Rope, we’re informed that Russell (who led the Mad Dogs and Englishmen band) actually deserves the credit for shaping the distinctive Cocker sound.

Whoever invented the sound, Shadowbox and its guests from JAG do a masterful job of re-creating it. All throw their hearts and souls into the music so totally that it’s probably unfair to choose an MVP, but I’ll do it anyway: Kevin Patrick Sweeney, whose limber keyboard work powers several songs, and whose lead vocals make Something and Sticks and Stones two of the evening’s highlights.

Walker, with his powerhouse voice and lithe dance movements, is another natural stand-in for the late Cocker (1944-2014). So is Guyer, whose many vocal contributions include his familiar rendition of Unchain My Heart.

Rounding out the male vocalists is his son, Gabriel Guyer, who brings his rich baritone voice to bear on the down-and-dirty Delta Lady and the inspiring Up Where We Belong (a nifty duet with Nikki Fagin).

Though Cocker’s lustier arrangements aren’t always a good match for female soloists, Shadowbox’s women excel on several numbers. Among them: Stacie Boord holds her own on Feelin’ Alright, with its series of calls and responses (Boord: “All right!” Chorus: “Uh-huh, uh-huh!”), then offers sweetly bluesy takes on The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen and Can’t Find My Way Home.

Another female-led highlight is Julie Klein’s rendition of Catfish, a blues number that tells an appropriately sad tale.

This is Shadowbox’s first collaboration with the Jazz Arts Group, and one can only hope it won’t be the last. Sax player Kris Keith is particularly prominent, but all four JAG musicians are given opportunities to shine.

With two percussionists (Matt “The Beast” Buchwalter and Brandon “Dreds” Smith) drumming simultaneously at center stage, guitarists wailing away at stage right and a smiling chorus singing with Pentecostal fervor at stage left, the Joe Cocker tribute is nearly as much fun to watch as it is to hear.

Frankly, it’s just fun, period. And, of course, joyful.

A Tribute to Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman continues through Sunday (March 8) at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.