By Carolyn Hayes
Think “Les Miserables,” and a word that springs immediately to mind is “enormity.” Created by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, and numerous collaborators, the show is a huge vocal and technical undertaking, in two tremendous acts, that covers sprawling narrative, geographic and chronologic ground as it ambitiously reenacts the equally huge Victor Hugo novel on which it is based. Yet enormity is not the purview of The Encore Musical Theatre Company, a repurposed building in Downtown Dexter turned overgrown-black-box performance space; an industry-convention “Les Mis” would overload it. The current production, with direction by Daniel C. Cooney and staging by Barbara Cullen, pulls back the throttle on excesses to fill a smaller stage. And although the company faithfully replicates the epic tale, framed by a righteous historical skirmish between revolutionaries and the French government, this production’s true showdown appears to be a more personal one: that between the live players and the pre-recorded score.
It’s understood that concessions are necessary to bring a giant show to a comparatively small house. Set designer Toni Auletti pushes everything back to the periphery, maximizing square footage and flow by presenting a strictly two-dimensional backdrop of cutout edifices smeared with the grime of the early-1800s French underworld. Lighting design by Daniel C. Walker makes no pretense of keeping up with the bustle of continuously sung and dovetailing phrases, but rather swings grandly through incendiary and moody schemes, sometimes swallowing up featured solos in the dim. The one steadfast visual cue of the magnitude of scenarios and characters is the costume work, for which designer Sharon Urick re-outfits the ensemble numerous times to convey various populations. The repeating faces in different garments, in concert with the curious notion that 32 bodies somehow feels like a small cast, serve as testaments to this musical’s staggering scope.
The action flows at a healthy clip in Cullen’s staging and choreography, which – again, understandably – makes reductions in the name of efficiency. Yet here, the overwhelming use of pantomime and especially invisible boundaries leaves setting and context largely to the imagination. The production presumes that viewers will be at least moderately familiar with the beats and plotting of the show, which follows parole-breaking convict Jean Valjean (J. Michael Bailey) through his spiritual and social reformation, his adoption of Cosette (Erika Henningsen), the daughter of doomed Fantine (Darcy Link), and his lingering fear of recapture by the relentless lawman Javert (Stephen West). Valjean’s story is meanwhile connected to a larger tale of political insurgency that lays bare the oppressed underbelly of France and includes a groundswell of second- and third-tier character arcs that ponder love, dedication and survival in a malicious world.
The show’s prize ponies are Valjean, for whom Bailey does strenuous physical work to manifestly age by decades and gently conveys unceasing internal conflicts, and Javert, to whom West brings thunderous braggadocio and operatic enmity in bulk. Most of the featured players earn their moment in the sun, including Henningsen, whose lovely Cosette is a vocal knockout and offers more dimension than the stock ingenue’s limp purity and privilege.
Other standouts include cocksure Zach Barnes as Enjolras, the unwavering leader of the student uprising; Marlene Inman-Reilly’s Mme. Thenardier, whose shrewd comic instincts are concealed within a beastly wretch; and Madison Deadman, whose initially hangdog Eponine elicits tears in a lyrical arc of character redemption.
Solitary contemplation and small interpersonal moments play generously in the small space, opening up notes of father-daughter devotion and other nuggets of connection that might be overwhelmed on a grander scale. Large-group and crowd scenes fare worse: Plainly curated gestures effectively convey the masses’ reactions, but the ensemble seems lacking in communal energy beyond anything prescribed. It’s a side effect of the production’s efficient utilitarian staging, which meets minimum requirements, but is always looking toward hitting the next mark.
But even this scurrying forward momentum is merely a symptom of the show’s fundamental concern: the treacherous task of keeping up with canned music, which supersedes and informs every choice. Singing to a glorified karaoke track is an admitted skill, especially through fluctuating tempos and songs that generally allow the performer some liberties; to this effect, music director Tyler Driskill has clearly coached the performers well to adjust and regain synchronization. Still, the perpetual game of catch-up that befalls West and others is discernible, and contributes to the unshakable sense that the performances and actions are in service of the music, rather than the other way around.
For a quarter century, viewers have flocked to “Les Miserables” for its music and its majesty. It would be foolish to expect The Encore’s production to have the same bombast as the enormous, garishly expensive spectacles served up by Broadway stages, national tours, and the silver screen. But frankly, just mounting this behemoth show is a victory in its own right. In that vein, the current production delivers the expected ingredients and fan favorites in a recognizable facsimile of the bigger picture.
The Encore Musical Theatre Company, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through Aug. 18. 2 hours, 50 minutes. $22-$32. 734-268-6200. http://www.theencoretheatre.org