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A moving production of a modern classic in ‘Les Mis’

By R. Eli Townsend
Special to The PREVIEW

An exceptionally talented cast, and resourceful staging and lighting, place an emphasis on the heightened emotions behind this tale of love, hardship and rebellion. Rather than the overblown spectacle you might be used to seeing, these elements are highlighted in Thingamajig Theatre Company’s extraordinary “Les Miserables in Concert,” opening Saturday, July 5, at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts.

Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name, the musical follows the plight of prisoner Jean Valjean, jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. After 19 years in prison, he is released on parole, only to break it when his criminal past makes it impossible to find work.

Despite constant pursuit from Javert, a policeman with a one-track mind, Valjean eventually claws his way up from nothing, managing to become mayor and a wealthy factory owner. When he inadvertently gets one of his workers fired, he makes a promise to the dying woman that he will raise her young daughter, Cosette, as his own.

We then flash forward ten years as Cosette, now a young woman, falls in love with an idealistic young revolutionary named Marius. As their love story plays out against the backdrop of the Paris Uprising, eventually there’s a happy ending for the lucky few who manage to survive the tale.

Epic in just about every sense, “Les Miserables” is an ambitious undertaking for any professional theater group, even one with an emerging reputation for excellence like Thingamajig Theatre. Faced with the task of coming up with ways to engage new audiences in all the story’s melodrama, the response from most directors seems to be doubling down on spectacle. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe starred in a lavish film adaptation, which expanded the world with a misguided focus on the grimy realism of 19th century France, while the overproduced anniversary tour added even more elaborate sets.

Lacking the budget of either of those productions, Thingamajig Theatre Company’s Producing Artistic Director Tim Moore (who also serves as director for the production) was more or less required to simplify the more technical aspects of the show. Scaling back the production, and dialing down the spectacle, has done wonders for the show, and the result is pure musical magic broken down to its essentials, without losing any of the drama.

While retaining the story’s scope, the smaller scale makes for an experience that feels more intimate, making it easier to get invested in the story and uncover the real emotions underneath. Particularly impressive is the fact that they are performing the show in repertory with “Beauty and the Beast,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and opening “A Chorus Line” on July 17.

It’s a testament to the deep pool of performing talent that the entire cast, from leads down to each member of the ensemble, is so strong. Comprised mostly of dancers this season, they show that to play with the big boys you have to be able to do it all: sing, dance and act — and these actors deliver. Perry Davis Harper (who only joined the company on June 30) makes for a powerful Jean Valjean, conveying the pain at the heart of the character without resorting to the histrionics that can sometimes sneak into certain portrayals of the character.

Troy Bruchwalski, who has already caused excitement with his rousing performances of Gaston in “Beauty” and Vice Principal Panch in “Spelling Bee,” hits his sweet spot as the self-righteous inspector Javert. His strong baritone is used to great effect during “Stars” and throughout the show. During Javert’s big moments to shine, he nails it perfectly and the character’s significant rage that lies hidden under the stoic exterior is displayed with poignancy.

Thingamajig veteran Jamie Finkenthal makes a lasting impression as the short-lived Fantine, and Morgan Howard (Belle from “Beauty”) gives an incredibly moving performance as the tragically lovesick Eponine. Newcomer Alejandro Roldan continues his impressive range of talent, transitioning from the handsome Lumiere in “Beauty” and unfortunate love-struck boy in “Spelling Bee,” to the leader of the Paris Uprising as Enjorlas in “Les Mis.” His performance is one of the show’s highlights as his powerful tenor fills the room and practically motivates the audience to stand and join his cause.

Moore himself steps into meaty role with Boni McIntyre and proves they’re an excellent team, turning in deliciously hammy, scene-stealing performances as Master and Madame Thenardier.

The love story between Marius and Cosette is always an engaging part of any production of “Les Mis,” so a special mention must be given to Zachary Spiegel (The Beast in “Beauty”), who, besides having a stellar voice, is able to take the traditionally dull character of Marius and invest him the angst of a young man’s life caught between duty to his companion’s cause and new-found love, Cosette.

Sarah Jane Fawcett is perhaps the biggest surprise of the production. In an unexpected twist, she brings Cosette into a whole new, exciting life that this author has been searching for with previous Cosette performances. She is a delight to watch and possesses a voice as powerful as any other lead in the production, yet tenderly handles the floating soprano required of the role.

Opening night has been sold out for some time now and promises a rare treat in addition to the pre-show gala and post-show talk-back, accompanied by all of Thingamajig’s openings. The remainder of the run is roughly 50 percent sold, so don’t delay your purchase. With its production of “Les Miserables,” Thingamajig Theatre Company proves that you don’t need a titanic budget to deliver Broadway-caliber theater. A professional, passionate, and skilled cast and crew is better than all the razzle dazzle money can buy.

Thingamajig Theatre Company presents “Les Miserables in Concert” at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts. Directed by Tim Moore, music direction by Venita Burch and conducting by Dan Burch. Rated PG-13. Playing Saturdays, July 5-Aug. 9 at 7 p.m. For tickets and information, please visit www.pagosacenter.org or call 731-SHOW (7469).

This story was posted on July 3, 2014.