I think of “Les Misérables” less as a musical than a great contemporary opera. It uses a complex system of musical motifs to tell a story full of spectacle and passion, with accessible melodies, which until 100 years ago was de rigueur for all opera.
Bloomington Civic Theatre’s production takes the story of Jean Valjean, the unjustly condemned criminal pursued by Inspector Javert, very seriously. True to the Hugo novel, it’s a profound meditation on justice and mercy, grace and redemption. Its story of economic inequality feels especially contemporary.
The musical performance is first-rate. Music director Anita Ruth re-orchestrated the score, eliminating the Broadway staging’s reliance on synthesizers. The 24-member orchestra enhances the music’s power. Powerful individual voices arise from a strong chorus.
Director Karen Weber is a master of the grand gesture. The big spectacle scenes are dazzling, adding to the romance and pageantry. But it is in the moments of individual suffering that the show finds its true humanity. She maintains the show’s fast-paced cinematic structure, hitting all the personal notes without losing the epic sweep.
Michael Hoover’s unit set is perfectly functional, but rather boring. It doesn’t live up to the excitement happening in front of it.
As Javert, William Gilness is a commanding presence, with a black bass that reinforced the character’s implacability. He makes Javert’s tortured inability to accept Valjean’s forgiveness deeply moving.
Dieter Bierbrauer is an ideal partner. He embodies Valjean’s spiritual struggles and makes his goodness compelling. His rich baritone, especially the thrilling top, makes the music exciting.
Standouts in the strong supporting cast include Aly Westberg, as Eponine, who turns her story of unrequited love into genuine tragedy, and Laurel Armstrong, as Fantine, whose lush lyric soprano is a real asset.
Carl Schoenborn and Sally Ann Wright are over-the-top as the comic villains, the Thernadiers, making their songs seem funnier than they actually are.
As the romantic duo, Riley McNutt brings a strong tenor to Marius, but the Cossette of Molly Jo Hall is a lightweight, both vocally and dramatically.
Given the strength of the production, especially the musical performances, as well as the intimacy of the Schneider Theatre, this is a more satisfying experience than even the Broadway productions.
William Randall Beard writes about theater and music.