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Review: Zach Theatre’s “Les Misérables”

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Riding on the coattails of last year’s film adaptation (and the Broadway Across America production that came through Austin in May 2012), Zach Theatre has chosen to bring us another rendition of the epic musical “Les Misérables,” playing now through Nov. 3 in the Topfer Theatre.

And this choice in timing can’t help but invite comparisons that ultimately result in a sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment.

Charging near Broadway prices (top tickets are $70 even in the week of so-called “preview” performances before press was allowed to review), the show only delivers Broadway quality up to a point.

The choreography is strong, as is the ensemble and most of the technical elements. Cliff Simon’s set offers a nice dynamism and versatility that move the show along smoothly, and Matthew Webb’s lighting manages to maintain the gravitas of the show’s content without plunging us into the oppressive darkness that many productions veer toward.

Matt Lenz’s direction of the show adds some nice touches that stand out – including a powerful and assertive staging of “At the End of the Day” that admittedly gave me goose bumps.

However, more than most musicals, responsibility for the quality of “Les Mis” depends almost entirely on its lead performer, and the frenetic and rushed delivery from Pat McRoberts (as Jean Valjean) does a disservice to the music and the production. McRoberts also has an unfortunate tendency towards a pinched facial expression that undermines the power of his performance.

But it’s not just a weak lead that drags the show down.

Zach’s production illustrates the impact of even the seemingly trivial aspects of a show: in this case, the outright terrible wigs prove not only distracting but verge on the comical.

Nevertheless, the supporting characters really stand out in this production. Nicholas Rodriguez gives us a wonderful rendition of Inspector Javert – through both his acting and robust singing. As Eponine, Traci Lee absolutely shines, and if you make it through her performances of “On My Own” and “A Little Fall of Rain” with a dry eye, then you’ve a much stronger constitution than yours truly.

Joshua Denning beautifully captures the passion of the young revolutionary leader Enjolras, and Paul Sanchez’s delivery as the Bishop of Digne is truly heartwarming.

Regardless of your level of devotion to “Les Mis” and its music (whether a seasoned viewer or coming to it fresh), there are sufficient things to take away from this production – even if the primary one is a desire to go home and watch the movie.

“Les Misérables” continues through Nov. 3 at Zach Theatre’s Topfer Theater. $25-$70. www.zachtheatre.org.