Theater Review: Grandeur and Ecstasy from Studio Tenn’s ‘Les Mis’

Les Mis 1I knew those involved with Studio Tenn Theatre Company’s Les Misérables are first-class theater practitioners; the professional credits from local, New York and London productions on various bios attest to that, as does the consistently high quality of the troupe’s work since its 2009 founding.

I’ve been in the Schermerhorn Symphony Center many times, so I knew how incredible the world-class acoustics are in Laura Turner Hall.

And although I’ve seen so many productions of Les Mis that I might be granted my own yellow ticket of leave, I figured as I settled into my seat Saturday I would be in for an enjoyable evening.

Les Mis 2Well, I underestimated my potential experience. I can’t recall seeing a show in Nashville that ever overwhelmed my senses like this marvelous production; I was so swept up in the grandeur of their work that I did something I very rarely do (and something that’s generally done far too often by audiences) – I leapt to my feet with a standing ovation as the “Do Your Hear the People Sing?” reprise/finale concluded.

What moved me so? Well, let’s start with the man playing Jean Valjean. I’ve known Mike Eldred for many years, and have been privileged to watch him work in several venues. Yes, his remarkably versatile tenor voice (I feel like I’m listening to a warm lyric tenor’s bright timbre with a spinto tenor’s heavier vocal weight and a dramatic tenor’s emotive abilities all rolled into one when he sings) is a divine gift, and since he’s played the role on Broadway and elsewhere he’s certainly got a clear and engaging take on 2-4-6-0-1. But a great artist can surprise us by making the familiar new again; this was never truer than his anguished probing of “Who Am I” and his prayer to God in “Bring Him Home” – I feel confident that supplication reached the heavens given the way it was so brilliantly sung.

Les Mis 3As Valjean’s relentless pursuer Javert Chuck Wagner was every bit Eldred’s equal before the sell-out crowd. What a mellifluous baritone he possesses! And his stage presence is mesmerizing. Once again, this actor has played the part on the Great White Way, but for this consummate pro there was no performance equivalent of nostalgia – his Javert pulsated with the conflicted life of a man who came “from the gutter too” but hardened his heart to the sufferings of others. And his performance of “Stars” – one of best numbers in the Claude-Michel Schönberg/Alain Boublil/Jean-Marc Natel/Herbert Kretzmer (and others) collaboration – was so beautifully evocative that the wonderful projection of celestial bodies which was part of Matt Logan and Mitch White’s pitch-perfect set design was rendered temporarily superfluous.

Les Mis 4There are others whose work was so good that words will never fully convey the sheer majesty of their performances. Included in the list are Laura Matula, whose electrifying “I Dreamed a Dream” as Fantine showcased her brilliance as a singer and actor; Rachel Potter, whose “On My Own” solo and “A Little Fall of Rain” duet with Matthew Scott’s wonderfully-drawn Marius were exquisitely heart-rending; Gregory Maheu (Enjolras), with dashing looks reminiscent of a young Jude Law and a powerful, rich tenor that made “ABC Café / Red and Black,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and other numbers sparkle; and Studio Tenn Managing Director Jake Speck and Kim Bretton absolutely owning “Master of the House” and other comic moments as the dastardly Thénardiers. Also included are Sarah Caroline Billings, whose part of “Rue Plumet – In My Life” as Cosette gleamed brightly (as did the rest of her performance); Bella Higginbotham, whose lovely “Castle on a Cloud” as the younger version of that character was very endearing; and Gus O’Brien, who brought plenty of spunk to street-smart Gavroche in “Little People” and elsewhere.

Les Mis 5The rest of the ensemble was terrific too (in big numbers and more intimate moments). A special note goes to Rod Fletcher, whose beautiful operatic bass was the balm of forgiveness as the Bishop of Digne in the show’s prologue; like others in the ensemble his talent and delivery were sublime.

Logan’s fluid direction and wonderful costumes (in addition to the aforementioned A-plus set design with White), Emily Tello Speck’s lively choreography (she was also the show’s assistant director), Sondra Nottingham’s excellent wigs and makeup, Danny Northup’s crystal-clear sound design and the sharp lighting (that was not credited in the program, but I was told after the initial publication of this review was overseen by production supervisor Grace Anzelmo) all worked to underpin a great production. And what about the 15-member orchestra and the large chorus led by Music Director Stephen Kummer? I doubt you’ll hear better playing and singing anywhere else.

The full effect of Studio Tenn Theatre Company’s Les Misérables is one of unforgettable theatrical ecstasy for those fortunate enough to see it – I will treasure the experience as long as I have the ability to recall anything in my life. Sad that there is just one day more (with two nearly sold-out performances remaining) for this show as I write this review on Sunday, but better to have had, seen and heard than not to have had, seen and heard at all.

For more information on this show and Studio Tenn click here to visit the theater’s website.

 

 

*Photos of (top to bottom of article) Bella Higginbotham and Mike Eldred, Laura Matula, Rachel Potter, Bella Higginbotham and Gus O’Brien as well as featured home page image by ANTHONYMATULA courtesy Studio Tenn.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).