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People's revolution has fighting chance at Phoenix Theatre's 'Les Miserables'

Phoenix Theatre this weekend opened their new production of the classic, well-loved Les Miserables to expectant, full houses, and young Nick Pauley who plays Gavroche visited with Examiner about his role in a show to which he's sung along to cast recordings since he learned to talk.

'Les Miserable' cast at Phoenix Theatre, May 2014
Sara Chambers/Phoenix Theatre
The barricade set of Phoenix Theatre's 'Les Miserable'
Sara Chambers/Phoenix Theatre

When most of us can hum the uplifting music, when everyone knows the general circumstance of the beautifully constructed characters, it begs the question: What keeps us coming back?

Les Mis endures, it seems, because the music and characters, always, rise to trumpet the nameless victims' plight in the face of omnipresent poverty, social inequality and collateral war damage. It's a show that implores the audience look into the faces and hearts of the little people struggling so desperately against awful, insurmountable, societal odds.

This weekend's Les Mis began with struggles to survive movie-fication and professional legitimacy. When the movie's shipyard was called to mind in Phoenix Theatre's opening chain gang scene, it was an impressive effect, but may have set the stage to defeat the show's hope of intimacy alongside epic scope. The disconnect seemed accentuated, ironically, by crisp musical phrasing, consciously-massaged well-trained voices, and expertly rehearsed staging.

Too often in the clockwork-smooth first act, the audience was not immediately moved to dispel its disbelief. So much technical precision and practiced enunciation exacerbated by harsh inhumanity amongst the prostitutes and inn-keeping crew existed, that some necessary empathy eluded the nearly full house. With movie-like impersonal etiquette responses, less than fully-engaged viewers came and went during important scenes, opened light-streaming doors during tender moments, and whispered loudly to friends.

But it was opening weekend and those bonds still have the opportunity to grow and gel. Certainly, a lot of lewd debauchery and calculating meanness exist in the script during the factory scene, the dock prostitute exchanges and the spirited tavern thievery. But when the "lovely ladies' " music hesitates over the notion of "going for a song," there is still room to fuse their crucial shared destitution. Beyond the bawdy opportunism at the inn, there remains potential for a comical shared levity about the ridiculous measures to which the downtrodden stoop in order to survive. Those interactions, no doubt, will come as the cast leans into and feels for each other more fully.

On several warm, wonderful occasions, however, onstage rapport did materialize from the taut harmonies and precise blocking. In Fantine's death scene, as Elizabeth Brownlee's buttery voice leaned into Valjean's (Douglas Webster's) protective shoulder and soothing tones, the audience had a glimpse of them truly touching the frailty in one another. When Javert (James Zannelli) turned inward to invoke God's assistance with his devoutly trusting baritone richness, the audience felt his humility.

Notably, the most sustained early shudder of shared humanity coursed out into the house when Gavroche first appeared to summarize the grand, historical perspective by refocusing the audience's lens. Through his pure pitches of innocent full disclosure, we identified with the personal gravity of his community's impoverished, tenuous existence.

What those little people of Les Mis have, at the end of the day, is their belief not always in the system or in God, but in themselves and each other. Their introspective recognition of concealed fragility, their trust in each other's hidden goodness, or at least their empathy for one another's common, unbearable condition, pull them through adversity with the viewers' inspired admiration and aching love.

Eleven-year-old Nick Pauley, who plays Gavroche gets it, maybe without realizing the significance his understanding has on the overall outcome of Phoenix Theatre's current production. "I think I would be brave like Gavroche for my family or my school, if I had to," Pauley said, likening the fear and adrenaline Gavroche harnesses to his own need to buck up when he spars with a big, intimidating karate opponent or to "stomp out a scorpion" for his mom and sister.

Pauley shared that one of his favorite moments is joining the cast onstage at the end of Act I for 'One Day More,' surrounded by incredible music and emotion. "We all start marching in a triangle and it gives me goosebumps," he confided.

Little did Pauley know that his entrance was a catalyst for genuine onstage camaraderie this weekend. When Gavroche, an eager-to-belong street rat, enamored by the welcoming kindness of especially the idealistic student Enjolras (Caleb Reese), made eye contact and fell into revolutionary step with the other rebels, an all-theatre, full-shiver commitment rallied.

That kind of face-to-face bond exuded palpable connections out in the crowd. With surprising domino effect, Gavroche and Enjolras' look, not of reverence that one gives to a benevolent savior, but better far, the steadfast admiration one reserves for a trusted friend, fostered and sealed it for us all, actors and audience alike. From there on out, the audience stayed wholeheartedly with the actors.

"I hope I do my job well enough so the audience can feel what I'm feeling, how scary it is taking a big risk to save my friends," Pauley said. And he certainly did so.

Director Robert Hupp clearly knows and illuminated well the heart-wrenching truth as the crowd watched the barricade rotate at the end of the scene. With perfect poignancy, two dusky spot lights gently illuminated the fallen Gavroche and the flag-draped lifeless Enjolras. The touch yielded an audible sob or two.

The same dusty spot illuminated Javert's anguished moment of truth in his searing delivery of the 'Stars' reprise. So when the technical effect of the suicide didn't quite achieve the intended spectacle, the audience forgave it. His nakedly confused regrets had already won us, never mind the bridge.

By the time Valjean's life was ending, the emotional buy-in at the theatre was at its peak. As Fantine, Eponine (Jenny Hintze) and Valjean gorgeously sung in unison, "To love another person is to see the face of God," and it was followed by the little people's faintly whispered, "Do you hear the people sing, lost in the valley of the night," everyone present did.

Bravo, little Gavroche. You and Enjolras, leading many fine others, are at the top of Phoenix Theatre's remarkable cast of Les Miserables.

- Jennifer Haaland