‘Les Misérables’ at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School by Jennifer Georgia

Our Lady of Good Counsel Theatre Company’s Les Misérables (the musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, based on the classic Victor Hugo novel, that originally opened in London in 1985) is a stellar production. In fact, it’s hard to believe this is a high school production; the singing, music, acting, and tech set a standard that will be hard for other shows to match. However ,one may have felt about the sumptuous and star-studded (or star-crossed?) recent movie version, it is good to see a solid staging of the original (or at least of the high school edition, even with the amusing lyrics to “Lovely Ladies”) to be reminded how thrilling this musical can be.

Jean Valjean (Neal Davidson) and Hailey Marie Giddings (Fantine). Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School.
Jean Valjean (Neal Davidson) and Hana Jones (Cosette). Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School.

And thrilling this production is, first and foremost because of the voices, which range from solidly good to utterly spectacular. (Vocal Director Renee Codelka and Assistant Vocal Director Chuck Hoag deserve congratulations). In a class by himself is Jean Valjean, played by junior (!) Neal Davidson. His voice is mature, nuanced, and wide ranging, and elevates the production from beginning to end. It was absolutely jaw-dropping when this young man, who had been singing some of musical theater’s most challenging music for 2 hours and 20 minutes, sent the final note of “Bring Him Home” soaring into the rafters. The slightly rough edges of that note tonight emphasized both the poignancy of the moment and the magnitude of the achievement.

The other principals’ voices nearly equaled his, especially freshman Hailey Marie Giddings’ Fantine, and junior Fiona Winch’s Eponine, sophomore Hanna Jones’ Cosette, and senior Thomas Brady’s Marius, whose “Heart Full of Love” trio reached spectacular heights. Brady’s “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was also beautiful and affecting. And Nicolas Rossi made a terrific Gavroche, especially as he’s not yet even in high school.Junior Stafford Nibley made a convincingly stiff-backed Javert, doing justice (as it were) to the difficult numbers “Stars”  and  “Javert’s Suicide.”

The acting was almost as good as the singing. Davidson’s Valjean stood out again here, as did Brady’s Marius, and Winch’s Eponine, and senior Malcom Combs as Enjolras. Particularly delightful were seniors Tony Gredone and Jillian Wessel as Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, who made the most of being the only comic relief in the show. (The roles of Eponine, Mme.Thénardier, and Gavroche are double cast, so these actors do not play all the performances). Some of the female principals, it must be said, seemed to be concentrating more on producing their lovely sounds than conveying emotion, but the music is almost affecting enough by itself. And kudos to the ensemble for their excellent engagement and appropriate reaction in the crowd scenes. Director Kristina Friedgen clearly took care with them, and it shows.

The direction in general was quite capable. A few odd choices, such as the Waldoesque striped prison cap Valjean seemed quite desperate to hang on to in the Prologue, or the teensy mustache he sported for the rest of the show, or having a character pour Marius “some wine and say what’s going on” only to snatch it away immediately so that the tablecloth is available for the “Red and Black” song are hardly flaws, or even quibbles. They seem more like endearing quirks, especially when compared to nice touches such as the use of a dropped flower to express the doomed love of Eponine for Marius, or some lovely funny business with suitcases in the very well-staged tavern scene, or the revolutionaries removing their caps as Eponine is carried out, or saluting the fallen Gavroche. Occasionally it seemed Ms. Friedgen gave characters movements in songs simply to vary the staging, without helping them find motivation for the action, which distracted from the emotional power of the number. The excellent “Little Fall of Rain,” in which no one moved a muscle while Eponine’s death moved the audience to tears, proved how little such wandering around is needed. In general, (except perhaps for Valjean’s setting Javert very close from the turned backs of the revolutionaries) the director used the ensemble in crowd scenes very effectively. And Christian Sullivan deserves kudos for the fight choreography, especially in the “Confrontation,” staged inventively with Valjean using a tray as a shield against Javert’s épée.

Solid production values supplied a suitable setting for these gems. No turntable here, but a relatively simple triple bridge-like set by Gina Sinha and David Petrocci served well for the various sewers, gates, and barricades as required, with cast members moving furniture. Laurie Bautista’s lighting and special effects made good use of fog for gunpowder or sewers, and rang color changes on the scrim in the background to identify the different eras or show everything from Javert’s stars to the battle scenes to le tricoleur at the end of Act 1 And (barring the rather startling British constable’s helmet Valjean showed up wearing at the barricade) the costumes by Susan Petrocci and Rosemary Slocum suited the production well.

Conductor Dr. Richard Slocum’s 14-member orchestra performed the difficult score as beautifully as the cast sang it. This was only the second performance, but the cast, crew and musicians performed as consummate professionals. And they also deserve praise for bringing this hefty show in under 3 hours despite an intermission and voluminous applause.

The cast of 'Les Miserables.' Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Good Counsel.
The cast of ‘Les Miserables.’ Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Good Counsel.

The 60 actors, production crew, and orchestra – 100 or more dedicated people – plus their fans in the audience, seemed proud of what they have achieved, as well they should be. I have seen Les Misérables  numerous times, and I don’t think I have ever before seen a standing ovation at the end of Act 1. What I saw tonight bodes well for the future of the theater in the DC area and at whatever colleges these talented students attend.

“Stars, in their multitudes,” are what this show has in abundance on stage, and what it deserves to receive in this review; I only wish I had more than five stars to give.

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Our Lady of Good Counsel Theatre Company’s Les Misérables plays through March 23, 2013 at the Performing Arts Center at Sandy Spring Friends’ School – 16923 Norwood Road, in Sandy Spring, MD. Remaining performances are on Sunday, March 17th at 2 pm, Friday, March 22nd at 7:30 pm, and Saturday, March 23rd at 2 and 7:30 pm. For tickets, purchase them online.

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Jennifer Georgia
Over the past [mumble] decades, Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters, and programs, and generally theatrically meddled on several continents. She has made a specialty of playing old bats — no, make that “mature, empowered women” — including Lady Bracknell in Importance of Being Earnest (twice); Mama Rose in Gypsy and the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd — when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.”) She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; she is quite easygoing. Really. But Jennifer also indulges her lust for power by directing shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies. Most recently, she directed, costumed, and designed and painted the set for Rockville Little Theatre’s She Stoops to Conquer, for which she won the WATCH Award for Outstanding Set Painting. In real life, she is a speechwriter and editor, and tutors learning-challenged kids for standardized tests and application essays.


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