By Pat Robbennolt
There are no superlatives in my vocabulary to adequately describe the performance that awaits you on the Mainstage of the Cumberland County Playhouse. Staging this musical was a huge undertaking for Jim Crabtree and his staff. It is the Tennessee professional premiere production of the musical Les Miserables. The ninety cast members include professional artists, elementary school students, and those in between.
We welcome to the stage Nathaniel Hackmann as Jean Valjean. He brings experience and enhanced power both vocal and physical to a demanding role. Valjean is a French peasant with amazing strength, a potentially violent nature and a compassionate soul. Hackmann has been playing Valjean in a national touring company of this award-winning show.
Listening to comments by the audience, I realized its members were divided between those familiar with the plot, having read the book or seen other productions, and those who had no idea of the background of this masterpiece.
The novel Les Miserables by French poet, playwright Victor Hugo, was first published in 1862. This tale of “the wretched ones” or “the miserables,” and is one of the great novels of the 19th century.
Our first encounter with Valjean comes amid the degrading conditions of a French prison in 1815. His crime: the theft of a loaf of bread for his sister’s child. That, together with attempts at escape, has netted him nineteen years of imprisonment. Like the novel, the musical traces the unexpected interplay of the lives of several people, while focusing on Jean Valjean, his search for a life of compassion and his experience of redemption. Law and grace, justice, romantic love, and familial devotion demand our attention through the musical as with the novel.
Ron Murphy and his superb ten-piece pit orchestra deserve the applause the cast encourages as part of the curtain call. Vocal solos, choral numbers, intricate choreography depicting violent interactions and delightful dance sequences are all supported by Murphy and his skillful fellow musicians.
I attended two performances prior to this writing in order to experience the interpretation of the roles by those double cast: Britt Hancock and Jason Ross alternate in playing Javert and Thenardier. Javert, the officer at the prison who reluctantly releases Valjean, pursues him throughout the French revolution. Thenardier, by contrast, is the comic villain whose wife is played alternately by Lauren Marshall and Angela Robbins.
Hancock plays Thenardier as constantly drunk whereas Ross plays a subtler comic until a later scene where he and Robbins do a wonderfully farcical dance.
Daniel Black first comes to the stage as the Bishop. He alone treats Valjean with mercy as Valjean breaks his parole and seeks to start a new life. This is a life-changing encounter releasing the strength and caring nature of Valjean. He becomes mayor of a town, willingly accepting the responsibility of raising a little girl, Cosette. I was able to see the emerging talents of Sophie Burnett and Adeline Smith. I may need to return to see Sasha Villaruz in the role. The elegant Lindy Pendzick appears as the adult Cosette. As a child, Cosette shares her life with Eponine. Anya Reichers and Kaydi McCausland play the role of this spoiled brat whose jealousy of Cosette leads her to cruelty. Anna Baker and Leila Nelson alternate in the role of the adult Eponine. Baker gives emphasis to their shared childhood. Nelson and Baker movingly portray their love of Marius (Greg Pendzick). Both have fine voices. It is a treat to hear the range of choreographer Nelson’s mature voice.
The audience was delighted to welcome Nicole Begue Hackmann in her eighth season. She plays Fantine singing the ballad, “I Dreamed a Dream.” She and her husband Nathaniel share powerful moments on stage.
“Do You Hear the People Sing?” is my favorite of the many wonderful songs. It continues to move through my head even as it moved through the ranks of the revolutionary French.
I saw Simon Berman and Christopher Figueroa in the important role of Gavroche. Another member of the Villaruz family, Zachary, also plays this role. I was brought close to tears by the loss of Christopher and Simon in the brutal warfare of the revolution.
Javert (Hancock and Ross) inspects the dead in the sewers of Paris, removing any gold, including a ring and gold from teeth of the dead. Valjean enters to find a spark of life in Marius. Awareness of his daughter Cosette’s love for Marius leads the compassionate, physically strong Valjean to save him. There is death and destruction. There is love and joy. This remarkable cast expertly depicts the full range of human emotion.
Britt Hancock, Weslie Webster and Leila Nelson have assisted Jim Crabtree in staging this huge production. To create the appearance and atmosphere required, scenic designer John Fionte has worked in collaboration with media designers Sandra “Sam” Hahn and Chicago’s Dunaway Designs, as well as Atlanta and Knoxville lighting designer Josh Hamrick. Plaudits go to Rebel Mickelson and assistants Renee Luttrell, Terry Schwab, Sandy Black and other members of the crew for the over 200 costumes we see.
I will end as I began: There are no superlatives in my vocabulary to adequately describe the performance that awaits you on the Mainstage of the Cumberland County Playhouse. Order your tickets and encourage out-of-town family and friends to visit while Les Miserables is playing. One further note: You may it helpful to spend a few minutes before the performance with the listing of scenes and musical numbers found in your program.