What is Les Misérables without spectacle? Is there even a show left once you pare down the costumes, do away with nearly all of the effects and nix the hulking, cumbersome sets? Balagan Theatre’s production of the most enduring paragon of theatrical excess this side of Andrew Lloyd Webber puts the question to the test with its stripped-down staging of Boubil and Schönberg’s musical, and the result is a fleeter, nimbler Les Mis that avoids some of the more enervating aspects of the assembly-line touring productions.
Is it a perfect fit? Not entirely. Schönberg’s often stilted, repetitive compositions fare better when there’s more visual distraction onstage, and director Jake Groshong occasionally struggles with spatial distinction in the smaller, barer space of the Erickson Theatre. Still, the benefits of the more intimate staging far outweigh the problems; the enormous, room-filling sound of the company singing “One Day More” mere feet away at the end of Act I had an emotional immediacy that superseded any other rendition of Les Mis I’ve seen.
Balagan’s new artistic director Louis Hobson performs admirably as Jean Valjean. He shook off a few flat notes early in an opening weekend performance to nail the soaring refrains and the tough but tender nature of the protagonist. He isn’t quite matched by Michael Dunlap as lifelong nemesis Javert; Dunlap has the appropriate gravitas, but is a little too stiff to allow his character’s humanity to eventually shine through, and the stiffness carries over into some of his overly rigid vocals. Still, the two seem to bring out the best in each other; their dueling duet in “Cart Crash” turned a transitional number into a ferocious highlight.
Brian Giebler’s Marius just might be the standout vocal performance of the entire show, his voice possessing an angelic clarity as the love-struck revolutionary youth. Danielle Barnum’s Eponine is also superb, her vocals imbuing her character with a resolute toughness that the writing doesn’t always allow for.
I’ve always felt that Les Mis has a bit of a tin ear for comedy, but Robert Scherzer and Rebecca M. Davis are very welcome as the Thénardiers, with Scherzer especially ramping up the grotesquerie necessary to make the characters more than tiresome, interrupting buffoons. And while the show’s reliance on cute moppets (there’s at least one too many in this book) is irksome, Anna Imehana Lilinoe Ostrem’s Young Cosette is genuinely lovable, and her “Castle on a Cloud” note-perfect.
Despite staging a stripped-down version, Balagan’s technical team isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here. Ahren Buhmann’s set is functional and attractive, while Emmett Buhmann’s lighting design helps shoulder some of the scene-setting burden with effective recreations of sewer pathways and foreboding red-light districts.
Balagan’s Les Mis is a solid production, filled out with a very capable cast and occasionally reaching the kind of sublime emotional heights generally absent from bigger-budget stagings. It’s on stage now through Sept. 28. Tickets are available online.