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Civic raises the bar for community theater with its smash ‘Les Mis’

"Les Misérables"
"Les Misérables"Zach Rosing

Les Miserables

Rating:
Star5
Star
Star
Star
Star

It’s only been a handful of times that this writer has ever witnessed an audience cheer, whistle and applaud at the end of a first act such as they did Thursday night prior to the intermission of the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre production of “Les Misérables.” That reaction was typical during an evening that will long be long remembered for its powerful emotional impact. The show, which opened April 25 and closed Saturday, was presented at the Tarkington Theatre on the campus of the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel.

"Les Misérables"
"Les Misérables"Zach Rosing

This reviewer, who has seen the Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg hit musical numerous times, including on Broadway and several touring as well as an exceptional Beef and Boards production in Nov. of 2013, had originally made the choice not to review the Civic production. But due to the positive word of mouth and glowing posts on social media, Examiner.com decided to see this community theater production before the completion of its brief run

It was a decision that will never be regretted. There are just not enough superlatives to describe the quality of this community theater endeavor featuring volunteer performers and overseen by a professional staff which outdid itself in the execution of what was truly astonishing. More about that later.

In the meantime, in the off-chance that you have not yet read the Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same title, seen the stage musical on which it is based or the big Hollywood 2012 film musical version, here’s some background. “Les Misérables” tells the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant, who after serving time for stealing a loaf of bread for his niece, seeks a path to redemption. After breaking parole, however, Valjean is hunted by his adversary, police inspector Javert, who becomes obsessed with arresting and bringing his to justice. The historical backdrop for the latter part of the story is the 1832 Paris Uprising.

Credit for why this production, which was so successful on so many levels, is owed primarily to Civic artistic director Robert J. Sorbera who may well someday look back on it as one of his finest directing achievements.

Sobera could not have done better in casting all the primary roles with exceptional actor/singers who turned out some of the finest performances seen thus far this season by this critic. All are deserving of accolades but the most memorable performances were turned in by Matt Branic as Jean Valjean, Paul Nicely as Javert, Nathalie Cruz as Fantine, Marni Lemons as Madame Thénardier, Joe Doyel as Marius, Emily Hallowell as Éponine and Patrick Clements as Enjolras.

Several of the show’s most emotionally powerful moments occurred during Branic’s spellbinding solos as Valjean in “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home,” and when Cruz as Fantine sang “I Dreamed a Dream.”

Other highlights included performances featuring Clements, also a magnificent vocalist, who played Enjolras, the charismatic student leader of the rebellion, singing solos in “Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

“One More Day,” sung by the entire company, was the number that caused the audience to erupt into wild applause at the end of the first act and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” sung by Doyel as Marius, was a show interval that was one of its most moving.

Brent Marty, one of Indy’s finest music directors, conducted an excellent orchestra of thirteen musicians and was also responsible for the vocal direction of the cast—all of whom did fine justice to Boublil and Schönberg’s compelling score.

Moving to the Tarkington from its former home at Marian University was the best thing that ever happened to the Civic because it provided the crackerjack technical staff with state of the art resources to better utilize their first rate skill and showcase their craft. There is no question that these creative individuals were still able to achieve fine results with less in the past, but what they were able to accomplish as reflected in “Les Misérables” was as polished as many shows seen on Broadway by this writer.

Robert Koharchik, who designed the show’s ingenious set, and twin brother Ryan, who fashioned its exquisite lighting design, along with Adrienne L. Conces’ appealing costumes and Michael Lasley’s flawless sound design, all combined to provide the production with the look necessary to match the scale and scope of Hugo’s monumental tale of love and redemption.

Speaking of the Koharchik brothers, their combined design contributions and the show's special effects helped make the barricade battle scenes some of the most thrilling and exciting theater seen anywhere.

Hopefully the rave reviews of those individuals fortunate enough to see the show and who then spread the word were enough to fill seats during the show’s run, as it deserved. And for those who missed it, take comfort. The Civic, which has demonstrated a winning track record of mounting its share of hits during its brief tenure at the Tarkington, will no doubt repeat its success if the pros who stage its shows have anything to do with it.

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