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Fort Wayne Civic Theater's Les Misérables: Misdirected, but Rife With Talent

The ArtsAdrienne Westenfeld
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Coming on the heels of a recent film adaptation and a forthcoming return to Broadway, it’s no surprise that Fort Wayne’s Civic Theater would add Les Misérables to its summer slate. The Civic can’t be blamed for catching Les Miz fever— there’s a reason that this operatic nineteenth-century tale of spirituality, suffering, and the redemptive power of love has achieved such timelessness. Though the Civic’s production suffers at the hands of serious logistical setbacks, the show veritably brims with such gifted actors that even poor direction can’t hold it back.

The strength of this iteration of Les Misérables lies entirely in the prodigious talent of its cast, particularly the female leads. Emily Susanne Franklin is breathtaking as doomed prostitute Fantine, and Bridget Pearson’s poignant work as pining street-rat Eponine is all the more heartbreaking when juxtaposed against the exquisite trilling of her romantic rival, Lindsay Hoops’ Cosette. However, the work of the women in no way devalues that of the men — Todd Frymier effortlessly carries the weight of the production on his shoulders in a stellar performance as escaped convict Jean Valjean, and his resounding voice at times harkens back to that of Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role. In a part with similar weight, Stuart Hepler delivers a fine reinterpretation of authoritarian police inspector Javert, steering away from the pure malevolence that actors in this role so often embody to imbue him instead with unusual moral gray areas. Jimmy Mitchell is tenderhearted and vocally commanding as lovelorn revolutionary Marius, and Spencer Perkins turns in a delightfully extravagant show-stealing performance as Grantaire, the barricade’s resident cynical drunkard. Though Jake Wilhelm and Wyatt Chesebrough are weak links as a bafflingly out-of-character Enjolras and a woefully out-of-tune Gavroche, the cast is by far this production’s biggest asset — even the nameless revolutionaries, vagabonds, and prostitutes can more than hold their own against the leads.

Perhaps the production’s biggest shortcoming is the very same shortcoming that plagued Tom Hooper’s recent lackluster film adaptation: the omission of the narrative groundwork with the expectation that the emotional pay-off could still be reaped. One such incident relates to the director’s decision to axe the pivotal moment in which Javert first remarks Valjean’s extraordinary feats of physical strength; because of this omission, there exists no frame of reference for Javert’s later ousting of Valjean from his false identity by virtue of witnessing him lift a fallen cart from a pinned villager. Not only do such decisions leave theatergoers emotionally bereft, but they also leave theatergoers chattering in the atrium about their confusion. Although these omissions likely stemmed from a well-intentioned desire to trim the fat of a show often criticized as bloated, they were haphazardly done, almost as if director Gregory Stieber had closed his eyes before carving through the show with an indiscriminate scythe.

Stieber also relies too heavily on the songs to carry the narrative, and because the score can’t bear that immense weight, further confusion results. What’s more, many songs are so tightly stacked that their proximity to one another only serves to devalue their beauty. However, that beauty isn’t diminished by much — conductor Eunice Wadewitz coaxes out all of the orchestration’s nuanced tenderness and subtlety.  

Disjointed, uneven, and narratively alienating to Les Miz virgins though it may be, it’s hard to begrudge this production too much. Its vocals are so refined, its orchestration so beautiful, and its cast so tremendously gifted that the combination seems to punch a hole through the ozone of misguided direction. Though the production’s shortcomings certainly conspire against its leads, it’s a testament to their dazzling talent that not even those shortcomings can keep them down.