They spared no effort or expense, and it shows.
The Omaha Community Playhouse’s much-anticipated production of “Les Misérables” opened Friday, and it ranks with the very best shows staged there — truly superior, deeply moving storytelling.
In one lead role after another, this cast knocks your socks off. Awesome solo work on classic numbers combines with an exceptionally strong ensemble to make you feel each lump-in-the-throat moment of this story of love and redemption in early 19th century France.
Broadway veteran Timothy Shew sets the bar high as Jean Valjean, the ex-con who breaks parole to begin an upright life. After 1,600 performances in the role, Shew knows every emotional beat and plot point to emphasize, every lyric to enunciate with extra clarity. And his rendition of the show’s most famous song, “Bring Him Home,” brought the audience home.
Director Susan Baer Collins and assistant director Carl Beck display stellar staging work throughout, and local talent matches Shew’s performance level in scene after scene.
Julie Crowell is a revelation as Fantine, a young mother forced into prostitution to support her daughter, Cosette. Her version of “I Dreamed a Dream” may be the best this reviewer has heard, and I’ve heard plenty. A deathbed scene with Valjean, smartly staged, is just as impressive.
Joseph Dignoti nails “Stars,” the character-defining song of Inspector Javert, who is obsessed with capturing Valjean. Dignoti’s booming baritone and fierce stage presence bring Valjean’s nemesis fully to life.
Jennifer Tritz, as adult Cosette, and Joseph T. O’Connor, as young revolutionary Marius, who falls for her, are a vocal duo made in heaven. Her operatic soprano and his pure, high tenor combine with Abigael Stewart’s powerhouse alto, as Eponine, in one of the show’s highlights, “A Heart Full of Love.” It might be the best trio you ever hear on a local stage.
O’Connor displays perfect pitch and impressive range on the plaintive “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” (standout staging), and Stewart got one of the night’s loudest rounds of applause for the lovelorn “On My Own.”
Cork Ramer and Megan McGuire bring skillful comedic character work and vocal chops to the corrupt innkeeper Thenardier and his wife — better than what you saw in last year’s movie.
Tiny Grace Titus is visually perfect as little Cosette singing “Castle on a Cloud,” while young Noah Jeffrey makes brassy urchin Gavroche memorable as well.
Multiple aspects of the show rise to a rarefied level of excellence, none higher than the glorious singing by a cast of 33. The men sound great on “Red and Black,” the women just as great on “Turning.” When the entire cast hits the final notes of “One Day More” to cap Act One, it feels like that old Maxwell tape commercial where a man’s hair blows back. I got goosebumps. A Thursday preview crowd roared its approval and repeated it at the show’s close, a rousing “Do You Hear the People Sing.”
Jim Othuse’s scenic design impresses for its clean versatility, and a giant turntable cleverly enhances both scene transitions and travel segments. Mood-enhancing lighting, also by Othuse, adds much, as do hundreds of costumes by Georgiann Regan’s crew. From beautiful wedding gowns to rags, great coats to military uniforms, they’re something to see. Jim Boggess’ 11-piece orchestra delivers the familiar score with verve, and Boggess has a firm hand on the show’s pacing.
Was Thursday’s preview perfect? Not quite. Orchestra and singers weren’t always in perfect sync. Soloists and instrumentalists bent pitch on a note or fudged an entrance here and there. Microphone static distracted briefly. Recorded gunfire seemed faint at times. It all comes under the heading of minor preview adjustments.
For the Playhouse, this is a musical milestone, all stops pulled out full, and “Les Misérables” fires on all cylinders. Sellouts are inevitable. I’ve already got tickets to see it again.