John Jajewski (center foreground) in Four Season Theatre's Les Misérables
If you think you have to travel to Chicago -- or even downtown Madison's Overture Center -- to see high-quality musical theater, then you, my friend, are wrong. Some of the best stuff is going on right now at Madison College, as I learned Friday night.
When I heard that the Four Seasons Theatre production of Les Misérables (through Aug. 18) was on stage at Madison College's Mitby Theater, I felt a chip swelling on my shoulder. Broadway theater? At a community college? We're not talking about just any Broadway theater, but the iconic, operatic Les Mis. One of the shows most representative of the '80s style of Broadway blockbusters. Big voices, big personalities and big production values.
My suspicions couldn't have been more off base.
Four Seasons chooses locations appropriately sized for each of its productions, and Mitby Theater is a large, modern space, reminiscent of Overture itself in style and grandeur. Audience members ascended eagerly up the steps in droves, rushing to the show. Whether they were all family and friends of the 44-member onstage cast or just rabid fans of Les Mis itself, I don't know. But they were excited. The theater buzzed with the energy of an arena show. These people were ready to get their Les Mis on.
I've never been a huge fan of the show. I admire some of the big numbers. The relentless sincerity of parolee Jean Valjean. And the deathbed song Fantine, a beautiful factory worker turned prostitute, sings to her young daughter, which never fails to leave me in tears. But the show has its flaws. At some point, the French revolutionaries storyline takes over, and Valjean and his troubled pursuer, Officer Javert, are all but lost in the shuffle. Then there are the saccharine sweet love songs (yawn) and the endless recitative.
But even I'll admit that when I heard the first powerful notes surging up from the pit -- played by the live 24-member orchestra, a Four Seasons hallmark -- I felt the palpable excitement musical theater can bring. The Four Seasons players shone. It was obvious they all really loved the show, and they had the chops to perform it well. These are some of the best voices I've heard in Madison yet. Both lead actors and ensemble thrilled in their roles.
Eric Moore was powerful and clear as Jean Valjean, his voice filling the auditorium at all the important moments. Bridget Schwefel's Eponine had voice and personality to spare. And as the leaders of the ABC Friends, Chris Giese (Marius) and Chaz Ingraham (Enjolras) set an already electrifying show ablaze. Their youthful passion embodied the best of what Les Mis has to offer, great fun and high drama, at the same time.
With its soaring vocals and lack of pretension, this production was as enjoyable as that of nearly any professional touring company. If you love Les Mis, or you just really appreciate grand musical theater and crave to see it locally, you'll want to visit Mitby Theater before the revolutionaries are history.