By Adam Zielonka
The 2015 Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) at DeSales University opened Wednesday, June 10 with Les Misérables, directed by DeSales theater professor Dennis Razze and starring Mike Eldred as Jean Valjean, a role the acting veteran performed on Broadway.
The festival brings world-class actors to the Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, where DeSales theater students get the opportunity to work alongside them in a professional setting. Fifteen Act I veterans, both current students and recent graduates, were cast as ensemble members and swings in Les Miz, and others worked on the production behind the scenes as crew members.
Between 2010’s popular “25th Anniversary Concert” starring Alfie Boe and Nick Jonas and the 2012 feature film with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, the world has experienced Les Miz saturation as of late. However, PSF’s production is unique enough to enrapture audiences and keep most people from making comparisons.
It’s clear why PSF was thrilled to announce Eldred would play their Valjean. Put simply, his performance is impeccable. His version of Valjean’s big ballad, “Bring Him Home,” caught my eye as much as my ear. While his singing is beautiful, he also uses much more physical motion than any other “Bring Him Home” in memory. He gestures toward heaven, emphasizing that the song is a plea to God.
The majority of the cast performs just as eloquently. Jeremiah James gets to show off his impressive bass voice in the role of Javert. Thenardier and his wife, played by Tim Gulan and Eliza Gilbert, provide the comic relief necessary to their characters. The romantic energy between Marius (Brad Greer) and Cosette (Delaney Westfall) is satisfying, if not stupendous.
That’s not to say PSF’s show is perfect. Kate Fahrner is not fit for the role of Fantine. She’s a former Glinda in Broadway’s Wicked, but learning that only confirmed to me that she isn’t the right type to play Les Miz’s suffering single mother. Fantine’s big number, “I Dreamed a Dream,” lacks any emotional punch while brimming with off-color vowel sounds. Was that Fahrner smiling at the end of the desperate song? I hope my eyes deceived me. The show picks up steam after Fantine’s early demise.
As if to make up for this early awkwardness, the production treats audiences to a show-stealing Eponine—the beautiful Rachel Potter. She plays the tragic character with aplomb; her Eponine is just as much of a reason to see this show as is Eldred’s Valjean. Potter’s experiences range from Broadway to The X Factor to Walt Disney World, but it’s her side project as a country singer/songwriter that I believe lent itself to her rendition of “On My Own.” She uses just a few pop-sensible but tasteful vocal runs to make the already heartbreaking number the show’s most memorable. Her death in Marius’s arms five minutes later is also tear-jerking.
The Bulldogs on stage get their moments to shine, too. Beth Egan plays a wonderfully wicked factory girl who antagonizes Fantine in “At the End of the Day.” (Honestly, I was rooting for Egan.) Plenty of other recognizable faces and voices have solos, including Christine Baglivio (recently Rosemary in Act I’s How to Succeed) and Phoenix Best. Overall, Les Miz is a show that requires an ensemble strong in the vocal department, and the DeSales students provide that strength in heaps.
Razze leaves his own mark on the production with a few unique directorial choices I particularly liked. For one, Marius begins his first few lines in “A Heart Full of Love” – before he realizes “I’m doing everything all wrong” – as if he’s reading a bumbling script he scribbled on his way to Cosette’s house. For another, Razze has multi-instrumentalist ensemble member Louis Jannuzzi III (who last year fiddled in PSF’s Fiddler on the Roof) play guitar onstage to add to the acoustic ambiance of “Drink with Me.” Very clever touches.
“Les Misérables” runs through Sunday, June 28, and most nights have very limited tickets remaining for purchase. Tickets are also on sale for the rest of this PSF season, including Around the World in 80 Days, The Foreigner and Shakespearean plays Henry V and Pericles, on pashakespeare.org and through the Labuda box office.