It's hard to imagine a better choice for the Anchorage Concert Association's 2014/2015 season opener than "Les Miserables," the epic tale of love and loss amid the Paris Uprising of 1832. The show is one of those rare feats of artistic complexity and gravity in the mostly shallow canon of global pop culture; it appeals to nearly every demographic, from seasoned theatergoers who appreciate the show's operatic elements to young people who first encountered it through "Glee" or the 2012 film starring Hugh Jackman. "Les Miserables" deserves praise for bringing high music and drama back to the masses, and ACA is smart to take advantage of its crossover appeal with this specially commissioned show produced by Los Angeles-based Plan-B Entertainment.
The current production, playing at the Atwood Concert Hall through Oct. 26, mostly delivers on its promise of extravagant excitement. The set, designed by Cliff Simon, is especially impressive for a traveling production. Large, meticulously detailed pieces move on and off the stage so seamlessly you barely notice the transitions, and they frame the performance rather than distract from it. Lighting designer Chad Bonaker similarly creates an evocative atmosphere that does not intrude on the viewer or upstage the actors.
The cast, while inconsistent, includes some clear standouts, most notably Randall Dodge as Javert, the sinister police inspector obsessed with tracking down Jean Valjean, a thief who broke his parole and changed his identity. Dodge's powerful voice and commanding stage presence make Javert truly terrifying, but I found myself anticipating his next scene whenever he was offstage. Where some of the other actors struggled with the difficult music, Dodge's voice carried firmly and infused the performance with intensity.
Another magnificent performance comes from Katharine Kelly McDonough as Eponine, a young woman pining for the revolutionary student Marius. In McDonough's care, Eponine becomes perhaps the most sympathetic character in the play, her clear and beautiful voice embodying her character's heartbreak. And Alex Pierce, formerly of Anchorage, stands out in the chorus, bringing the energy and dedication of a principal actor to a number of smaller roles. "Les Miserables" can only succeed as an ensemble show, and Pierce's performance in multiple roles more than makes up for the fact that the chorus in this production is significantly smaller than it usually is.
I often found myself wanting more intensity from those principal actors and was occasionally distracted by problems with the music (not being able to hear the vocals over the orchestra or vice versa, and the musicians and singers not being in sync). However, such issues are to be expected with a traveling production, especially one with such a challenging score.
And no technical problem can mask the beauty of this enduring story about the karmic reverberations of our actions through generations. The production history even echoes the story, with the characters originally created by Victor Hugo in the early 1860s surviving through the most tumultuous century in human history to become worldwide icons, depicted through dozens of adaptations in a host of mediums and languages (including two Soviet claymation films, several Japanese anime TV series and two French video games). Both the story itself and the cultural phenomenon that surrounds it are testaments to the perseverance of human connection.
Ultimately, most theatergoers -- especially those seeing "Les Miserables" for the first time -- will cherish their memories of this production, having been transported from a gray and slushy Anchorage evening to the bustling cafes and streets of 19th century France, where (despite the smells of cigarette smoke, hairspray and overbearing fragrance from the audience members around you) you're a lover and a fighter, too.
Reach Egan Millard at emillard(at)alaskadispatch.com or 257-4453.
When: Playing now through Sunday, Oct. 26. Shows at 7:30 p.m. Wedn.-Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sun.
Where: Atwood Concert Hall, Alaska Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets: $54.75-$98 at centertix.net