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Review: Timber Lake staging of ‘Les Mis’ revolutionary

Published: Monday, Aug. 4, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

MOUNT CARROLL – “Les Miserables,” the season’s fifth show at Timber Lake Playhouse, opened Thursday evening to a near full house and much enthusiasm to experience the beloved classic based on a novel by Victor Hugo.

The production of this show is a first for TLP and, as executive director James Beaudry noted, a first for professional regional companies nationally since it was recently released beyond schools. Meantime, it has continued a successful London run since 1985 and produced all over the world.

Beaudry also boasts the largest orchestra of his tenure, directed by Cindy Blanc and assisted by Michael Uselmann.

The musical is a masterful collaboration of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, and original French text by Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. It was adapted and originally directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird with orchestrations by John Cameron.

While the story gives life to early 19th century and the French Revolution, it is told by characters of passion, humor and decades of darkened episodes of ongoing redemption. It could be anyone’s story, anytime, in any war.

Through the almost imperceptible presence of fog, TLP examines our regard (or disregard) for history as told by classic characters of the era. The use of the rotating set effectively adds depth for time passage and slow motion.

This production also is most fortunate to have guest director Matthew Teague Miller returning after the 2011 production of “The Spitfire Grill.” For him, the inner workings of “Les Miserables” flow freely, since he spent 3 years as an actor touring with the original Broadway cast.

Special guest artist Jason Kraack, in the lead role of Jean Valjean, brings a lifetime of experience to the show as the consummate professional actor, concert musician and music director. His long list of accomplishments includes lead roles in “The Fantastics,” “Assassins,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Evita.”

Kraack presents a unique background to this TLP production, having performed this role with the Third Broadway National Tour of “Les Miserables.” His very presence carries much more than a lengthy résumé, however, because he exudes a distinctive aura of untouchable skill, yet accessible passion. That is especially apparent when his seemingly wide open vocal range reaches upper notes, almost indescribable, comforting and chilling at the same time, as in “Bring Him Home” in the second act.

Another guest artist to TLP is John Leen in the role of police inspector Javert. The Chicago actor’s many credits include Drury Lane Water Tower, Light Opera Works, Bailiwick and Metropolis Performing Arts Centre. His strong work in this show reached a peak in the second act’s “Javert’s Soliloquy.”

Lexie Plath as downtrodden Fantine further exhibits her versatility, having performed roles from silly to serious in “Young Frankenstein,” then mood-swinging dysfunctional in “Rumors.” Her familiar song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” is especially moving.

Returning actress Erica Stephan as waif and in love Eponine performs equally moving passages in the Robbery/Intervention scene, as does Caroline Murrah as Cosette. Notable actor Grant Brown as Bamatabois and Grantaire is most familiar from show to show, but distinct in his characters.

The handsome role of Marius is strongly portrayed by Nathan Goodrich, as is the comic shenanigans of thieves Thenardier and Madame Thenardier by Matt Webb and Analisha Santini, respectively.

Charming additions to the adult cast are Lily Leding of Clinton, Iowa, Avery Findlay of Savannah, and Cecelia Ryan of Sterling.

Timber Lake’s 53rd season is rapidly passing with one more show, “Shout! The Mod Musical,” to go.

Showtimes

“Les Miserables” runs through Sunday at the playhouse, 8215 Black Oak Road, Mount Carroll. All evening performances begin at 7:30 p.m. (no show today), with 2 p.m. matinees Wednesday and Sunday. Group rates available.

Contact the box office at (815) 244-2035 or www.timberlakeplayhouse.org for more information.

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