It takes a big show like “Les Miserables” to prove that Music Theatre of Wichita can, indeed, go toe-to-toe with the best of Broadway and make theater a life-affirming experience rather than merely entertainment.
This sumptuous encore of MTW’s 2008 production, brought back earlier than usual as a last chance because rights revert to a Broadway revival next spring, is emotional, inspirational, heartbreaking and transformational in its tale of redemption and second chances.
And it’s told through some of the most triumphant and transcendent music you’ll ever hear by Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Herbert Kretzmer.
This production is sort of a twin to the 2008 show because several of the key personnel are the same, from guest director Joe Locarro to music director Thomas W. Douglas (who goes virtually non-stop for three hours with his 22-piece orchestra) to Nicholas Saverine as wronged protagonist Jean Valjean to local favorites Tim and Karen Robu as the bawdy innkeepers, the Thenardiers.
But it’s more a fraternal than identical twin because of differences from new cast members and the vagaries of live theater. If you saw it in 2008, this will be familiar but not exactly the same. It’s living art, not a movie.
Saverine, an internationally known operatic tenor/baritone who graduated from Wichita State, has an exquisite and versatile voice that’s thunderous for the soul-searching “Who Am I?” but also elegantly clear in the supreme high ranges for the haunting prayer “Bring Him Home.”
Saverine has sung the role of Jean Valjean all over the world for two decades and knows how to bring us intimately into the world of a man who was jailed for 19 years for stealing bread to feed his starving nephew, then in desperation escapes from probation to reinvent himself as an honest man, though constantly on the run.
Playing Inspector Javert, the obsessive, moralistic policeman who pursues Valjean for years to bring him to justice is Broadway veteran Kevyn Morrow, last seen here two years ago as King Triton in “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.” Morrow has more of a Broadway voice than an operatic one, but he has the necessary timbre and power to go up against Saverine, particularly for Javert’s grudging “Soliloquy” as he tries to understand why Valjean doesn’t act like the villain he believes him to be. Morrow also has a sinuous grace that makes him visually predatory to enhance his character.
Younger cast members who play idealistic students protesting poverty in 19th-century France and the women who love them are universally fresh and accomplished.
Ian Patrick Gibb is Marius, who falls for Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette, played by Kathryn Boswell. Their love duets — “In My Life” and “A Heart Full of Love” — are hauntingly lovely, particularly with Boswell’s high endings. Her voice can send thrills up your spine.
Sean Ronayne is dashing and dynamic as Enjolras as he leads his fellow student revolutionaries in the rousing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and, particularly, “One Day More,” one of the best act closers in stage history.
Carolyn Anne Miller as the tomboyish Eponine, who secretly loves Marius but who selflessly helps him connect with Cosette, breaks our hearts with ”On My Own” and “A Little Fall of Rain.”
Eleanor Fishman as Fantine, Cosette’s dying single mother forced into a life of prostitution, is riveting with her “I Dreamed a Dream” lament. And 13-year-old Ze’ev Barmor as cagey street urchin Gavroche is an engaging, pugnacious delight.
The Robus as the vulgar and shady Thenardiers provide needed comic relief to the heavy themes with their “Master of the House” and, later, “Beggars at the Feast.”
The towering and painterly street sets by Bruce Brockman are from the 2008 production and, combined with lighting (and a little fog) by David Neville, create an appropriately shadowy atmospheric foundation. Neville cleverly spotlights the characters from front and back without spilling light onto the scenery, thus preserving the dark mood.