After growing from a single campus east of downtown Charlotte to a network of six campuses spread across Mecklenburg County, Central Piedmont Community College has plenty to celebrate – including a strong cultural presence – as it reaches its 50th anniversary. Commemorating the occasion, CPCC is staging a lavish production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Les Misérables at Halton Theater in an unprecedented collaborative effort by CPCC Theatre, Opera, and Dance. Sets and costumes by Robert Croghan underscore the budgetary benefits of pooling the resources of these three arts programs, particularly when we reach the splendors of the penultimate scene when Cossette and Marius are wed. Along the way, the success of CPCC’s collaboration isn’t unalloyed. In fact, it is largely the hybridization of the effort that reduces the pure delight of this golden anniversary production from 24- to 18-carat.
Although the set pieces and drops are all decorous and apt, some assembly was occasionally required to accomplish scene changes, and a distracting pool of light was emanating from the wings downstage, where cast members were visibly scurrying around offstage. All was well below ground, where Drina Keen led a 15-piece orchestra, but there were more than a couple singers onstage who struggled to approximate the proper pitch from the pit and others whose efforts at enunciation were marred by severe symptoms of bel canto. The infiltration of opera singers in the cast wasn’t only a noticeable defect when we were expecting to hear recognizable English, but there were numerous instances when these same singers were called upon to credibly act. Most disappointing among these was Brian McCarthy as Javert, the implacable policeman pursuing our hero Jean Valjean, who has broken his parole after serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Seemingly cast by director Tom Hollis for his unquestionable ability to look fearsome standing over a victim, McCarthy was notably less impressive when he had to sing, move, or speak. He applied himself diligently, as did technical director Don Ketcham and lighting designer Jonathan Dillard, so Javert’s showpieces, “Stars” and “Soliloquy,” could be confidently described as bland rather than disastrous.
Nor was excellence sparse among the three dozen other performers Hollis has cast, including the newcomers who are in key roles. Fortunately, you’ll find seasoned veterans entrusted with the heftiest shares of the drama and the comedy. Ryan Deal, who has sung leading roles for three Charlotte companies, did something on opening night as Valjean that he has never achieved in a musical before: he was accorded an ovation befitting an opera singer when he sang the climactic “Bring Him Home” on the eve of the final battle at the revolutionary barricade. And indeed, he was vocally as strong as any of the touring Valjeans I’ve heard over the past two decades, but Kevin Roberge as the guttersnipe innkeeper and swindler Thenardier may have been the best I’ve ever seen in that role. Hollis undoubtedly helps him out by not requiring Thenardier to pick every pocket and swipe every coat or parcel from every customer who enters his inn during “Master of the House,” a break with hallowed tradition that apparently causes no public outcry or permanent harm to the universe. The only caveats with the performances by Deal and Roberge are the Barbi Van Schaik wigs they’re saddled with. I’m not certain that Thenardier ought to look like Moe Howard from The Three Stooges, and I’m uncomfortable with Valjean perpetually looking like he’s two tusks short of playing the leading man in Beauty and the Beast.
Van Schaik’s work is more flattering for the lead ladies, all of whom come blessed with dulcet voices. A convincing wig is essential for Lucia Stetson as factory life martyr Fantine, who must sell her locks at every performance, and any jolt that we might have suffered as Stetson transforms from her long-haired luster to her feathered look was softened as she sang her “I Dreamed a Dream” and her ensuing valedictory. Fantine’s orphaned daughter, Cossette, is mostly corseted by her decorative innocence under the heroic Valjean’s care, but 16-year-old Caroline Kasay, who first burst on the local scene in 2005 as Baby June in Gypsy, injected more vitality into the damsel than I’ve usually seen from the touring show. The most auspicious debut was by Kayla Ferguson as Thenardier’s piteous, don’t-pity-me daughter Eponine. Her voice is more pop than Deal’s and less Broadway belt, but her “On My Own” near the start of Act II drew a comparable ovation. Somewhat upstaged by her more rascally husband, Karen Erbe as Madame Thenardier was quite salty and formidable inside her ample bodice.
Things get a little more rickety when we reach the 1832 barricades in this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. The cute little street urchin and flag-waver Gavroche is usually only fitfully intelligible when the Les Miz tours roll into town, and Wyatt Johnston fit that mold delightfully on opening night, his identification of the masquerading “Javert!” emerging out of the general verbal fog when it was crucial. If Johnston occasionally sounded oddly Cockney and Dickensian, another voice on the ramparts had a distinctively Caribbean or African tang. With so many body mikes, pinning down where voices were coming from in the crowd scenes became difficult. Nor was the Halton’s sound system immune from sudden clipping when actors came in contact with one another or sang out collectively at full volume. More consistently disconcerting was the presence of opera singer Harrison Bumgardner as Enjolras, the leader of the freedom fighters. None of Bumgardner’s special vocal assets came to light as he led “The People’s Song,” and the charisma he flashed in his rebel-rousing moments was no more fiery or potent than a corporate accountant’s.
Yet, a nicely modulated romantic fire came from Erik D’Esterre as Marius, the young revolutionary who is instantly smitten with Cossette. D’Esterre balanced Marius’ devotion to Cossette against his obliviousness to Eponine’s worship as well as anyone I’ve seen, and there was genuine gravitas in his rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” after the unhappy ending of the people’s revolt. Other moments in this production, especially the “Drink With Me to Days Gone By” on the eve of the final assault, told me that this might indeed have been 24-carat effort if Hollis had been able to lean more on CPCC’s professional-caliber theatre talent pool and less on the school’s weaker opera program. What we got was more authentically community theatre, and the audience rose spontaneously and appreciatively for a standing ovation after it was unveiled.
Les Misérables continues through Sunday, November 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.