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THEATER REVIEW: Les Miserables

by Chris Conley

THEATER REVIEW (WSAU) The worst thing about Les Miserables is that it's so... French. There's a drifting disconnect that separates pre-revolutionary France with English and American audiences. And the subtle differences between them and us seem wider to me than, I suspect, most of the play's enthusiasts. Convicts have special papers? Paris is a walled-off city? The adulteress can't work in the factory, but the streets are filled with prostitutes? Just what kind of a mistaken-identity investigation will the high court be conducting? These are small ponderings. Wausau Community Theater's production of Les Miz is their best show of the season and a wonderful night at the theater.

I was most-able to connect with the story in the spoken word Bille August movie from 1998, where the set looks French but isn't (it was actually filmed in Prague). Perhaps I found it easier because the plot was chopped down to more digestible pieces, and the anglo-cized dialogue is simpler than sometimes-cloudy lyrics. The 2012 musical film won four Oscars, but I always though the singing wasn't authentic, as if the camera cuts were a distraction from the actual performances. My assessment of the score with more than 50 musical numbers is that there was always more chafe than wheat.

There's no denying the Victor Hugo book is fertile ground for a musical. And, like most good musicals, the experience needs to be a feast for the ears and eyes. The WCT production was particularly well-sung and was visually striking at all the right times.

One of the challenges for a community-theater production of Les Miz is the depth that's needed in the cast. For this run WCT has put together a very strong top-to-bottom company. Kate Kierzkowski (Eponine), Penny Mackedon (Fantine), Cassie Zell (Cosette), and Brian Zell (Marius) could all be cast in lead roles in other, less complicated plays from earlier this year. Tonight they all had moments in the spotlight, and all revealed their talents.

The two leads, Brandon Teal (Jean Valjean) and James Bjorklund (Javert) are simply the best leading men that Wausau Community Theater has presented in my ten years in town. Teal, a master's degree holder in vocal performance, is a clear and expressive singer who understood the moments when subtlety was called for. Bjorklund, who was outstanding as Don Quixote in the '11 season, has a relentlessly strong voice that give his performance depth and drive. Together they brought a level of talent to the stage that was well deserving of the standing ovations received at evening's end.

Special laurels go to two of the child-performers. 9-year-old Sarah Macco was enchanting while singing "Castle In The Clouds" as young Cosette. And young Max Koepke as Gavroche captivated the audience every time he was front-and-center. Both have spent time with Central Wisconsin Children's Theater. CWCT's Joelle Murray and WCT director Larry Kirchgaessner have, for years, worked with younger children who've developed a love for singing and acting that is now taking flight in these types of high-end productions.

If you attended earlier Wausau Community Theater productions this season, you've noticed that attendance is lagging. Some of the Thursday opening-nights this year had scary-small crowds. I have only opinions, not definitive answers, about how community theater should be promoted and marketed in Central Wisconsin. (I always suggest more radio advertising... but that's my solution to almost everything.) The full-house on Friday night is easily explained: pick a popular show with cross-generation appeal, present it well, and the audience will show up. Word of mouth and a good review means seats will be scarce for the remaining three performances. You're in for a special treat if you already have a ticket.

Chris Conley