Les Miserables at the Reagle Music Theatre – 5 stars

Les Miserables has been an incredibly popular musical since it was created in the 1980’s, made even more so by the recent release of the movie version, which was nominated for 8 Academy Awards (and won 3). However, this show is made for the stage, not the screen. The characters sing to us, we identify with their longing, we accept their confidences, and our tears are their tears. They interact with us and we, in turn, give them applause, laughter, or silence to acknowledge that we heard them and know their story. It’s our frustration with the system, too. It’s our longing for that special person, too. It’s our desire to have someone take care of us, too.

Waltham High School is a summer destination when it comes to upscale theater, with a large, air-conditioned, comfortable auditorium. The Reagle Players have called this location home for 45 years. From the moment I entered the theater, I could feel my heart beating with excitement. I have a favorite character (Fantine) and song (On My Own). I want to know how the color red will be used in Enjolras’s death scene (it was there, but not as dramatic as I would have liked) and if Jean Valjean will actually show his strength by lifting people off the ground (he didn’t). I eagerly anticipated the story to unfold. For each song, and I knew them all, I hungrily waited to see how it would be sung and acted out. I know I was not alone.

At intermission, I overheard fellow theatergoers reveling in the costumes and scenery that backed up the stunning musical performances. After all, in Act I we heard Angela Richardson’s Fantine slowly, quiver and sing, “I Dreamed a Dream” into a rising crescendo of anger and resentment for how her life has turned out. I loved that it was placed immediately after Fantine was let go from the factory. It made sense to hear the desperation in her voice BEFORE she is lured to prostitution. It is a daunting task to sweep across France and tell the story of love for one’s country, love for one’s child, unrequited love, and romantic love in a unique and fresh way, but Director David Hugo does just that.

Hugo prepares a photograph for us. One of revolution, differences in social class, crime and punishment, redemption, death, and love. He does this without explicitly telling the story but, instead, by displaying a snapshot. The ensemble uses tableau (standing frozen) and pantomime (creating conversation and action with no words and little actual movement) to SHOW us the conditions, despair, and camaraderie among the people. I can’t say enough for this brilliant ensemble. Many members play multiple roles, make quick costume changes and yet keep their stellar character transitions from factory workers, to poor beggars on the street, to militia, prostitutes, and aristocracy. This also means that the sound of the chorus is full and includes both male and female voices in all scenes, further emphasizing that this is a story of the people for the people (and not the big screen). I enjoyed seeing female soldiers with rifles and male factory workers sewing; both sexes side by side in each scene. Hugo was not boxed in to what gender should be where and the production benefited from his wisdom.

Hugo’s decision to wait and place “On My Own” after the intermission just before the battle makes Act II even more powerful. The musical interlude begins, the lights go down, and there she is. Mara Wilson as the Adult Eponine and her pain is so real. I felt it. My skin prickled. Wilson is just a senior in high school, but already commands an audience.

Ivan Rutherford, who has performed as Jean Valjean more than 2000 times on Broadway, reprises his role. He has a remarkable voice, spanning a huge range and delivering a beautiful, “Bring Him Home.” Broadway vocal coach Doug Jabara plays Javert, a police officer who ruthlessly pursues Valjean, prisoner 24601. Javert’s first appearance in shadow behind a grate above the stage floor wearing a plumed bicorn hat highlights the lighting design by David Wilson, which adds to the drama and let me know that I would need to look vertically and horizontally to catch all the action.

The cast of over 43 members includes David Carney as Enjolras, leader of the Friends of the ABC Resistance Movement, and Danny Harrington as Gavroche, the youngest warrior and first to die in battle. 11-year-old Harrington keeps his accent and humor, delighting the audience. Emma Schaufus and Eowyn Young, alternating as Young Cosette and Young Eponine, are talented up and coming child actors. Young’s performance of “Castle in a Cloud” rang high and clear with her voice reflecting a dream quality. Tony Award nominee Maureen Brennan is Mme. Thenardier and Rick Sherburne is Thenardier. They are the comic relief in a serious, sad story. I laughed out loud when “Master of the House” was rendered with Brennan sneaking around on the floor of the inn to pick pocket-guests and loot through the baggage she could barely move for the sheer weight of it, all the while singing in a perfect off -kilter French accent.

Kathryn McKellar is the Adult Cosette who is in love with Marius, portrayed by Ross Brown. Along with Mara Wilson, the triad blends their voices for a wrenching harmony of “A Heart Full of Love” and, later with Rutherford to sing “Every Day” which reminds us that, when our hearts are broken, some people were “never mine to lose.” McKellar’s Boston Conservatory training can be heard in her beautiful soprano voice. I appreciated that the untrained ear of us enthusiasts could actually understand her words.

Why is this musical so popular? Victor Hugo said it best in the preface of his novel, “so long as the three problems of the age-the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night-are not solved… so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” The Reagle Players have another hit on their hands that ended with a standing ovation as soon as the first cast member stepped upstage in front of the packed house. As I looked around, wiping tears from my own eyes, I could see I was not alone among the blotchy faces. The Reagle Players are ending their 45th anniversary summer season with a show that is sure to sell out every night.

There are 54 songs listed in the original production because there are no “speaking” parts. About half of those “songs” are dialogue that is sung. While all ages were present in the auditorium, children may have difficulty following the operatic singing style, and therefore the story. In addition, the themes of death, drinking, and sex may not be appropriate for the very young.

Performances of LES MISERABLES are August 8, 10-11 and 18 at 2 p.m.; and August 9 and 15-17 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $57, $49, $42 and $35 for adults, with a $3 discount for seniors (60+). Youth (5-18) tickets are $25. Tickets are available by calling 781-891-5600, in person at the Box Office, or at the website. Reagle Music Theatre is located at 617 Lexington Street in Waltham, MA. For more information, visit www.reaglemusictheatre.org.