Scaled-down 'Les Miz' measures up on Long Beach Island

In the intimate confines of Beach Haven's Surflight Theatre, a "Les Miserables" in a full yet scaled-down version.
In the intimate confines of Beach Haven's Surflight Theatre, a "Les Miserables" in a full yet scaled-down version.
Posted: August 09, 2013

WHEN IT first crossed the Atlantic Ocean to America in 1985, "Les Miserables" was arguably the greatest spectacle Broadway had ever seen.

With its groundbreaking, turntable-driven staging, space-dominating barricades and brilliant, reality-altering lighting schemes, "Les Miserables" provided a powerful visual experience that matched the sonic intensity of the score.

But during the past decade, the venerated "sung-through" version of Victor Hugo's classic 19th-century novel of love, deceit, despair and redemption has been shrinking.

First came executive producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh's decision, about five years ago, to allow regional theaters to "reimagine" "Les Miz."

Here in Philly, the Walnut Street Theatre was among the first to discard the turntable that gave the original production its cinematic qualities.

Then came a national tour that followed the wheel-less blueprint. A second bus-and-truck version followed (it played the Academy of Music at the beginning of 2013).

And, thanks to producer Mackintosh's desire to make the show increasingly accessible to performers and audiences alike (and, we can assume, his desire to further monetize the property), "Les Miz" has been licensed to all manner of theater companies, including those of the summer stock, community and high-school ilk.

But not all these producing entities have had the size and/or budget to do up "Les Miz" in the manner to which we are accustomed. Case in point: The production that runs through Aug. 24 at Beach Haven's venerable Surflight Theatre.

This version may be the most scaled-back rendition yet seen in the region. That it's a more modest undertaking is evident before the first note is heard. Patrons are greeted by a monolithic faux-stone backdrop that remains in place throughout the proceedings.

Furthermore, the ensemble has fewer members than previously seen editions have boasted, and the familiar dramatic lighting effects (e.g. the scene in which streaming white light and shadows combine to create the illusion that the characters are in a Paris sewer) have been replaced with less sophisticated schemes.

But these elements need not be taken as negatives. For when it comes to the Surflight's "Les Miz," size really doesn't matter.

How can it, when you're dealing with one of the most moving and powerful collections of songs ever written? It's doubtful that such numbers as "I Dreamed A Dream," "On My Own," "Stars" and "One Day More" could ever lose their magic, regardless of staging.

Of course, poor vocal performances can torpedo any musical undertaking. But, by and large, the diverse cast that includes Broadway pros and local kids alike does justice to the unforgettable Alain Boublil- Claude Schonberg score.

Any rendering of "Les Miserables" pretty much begins and ends with the vocally and physically demanding role of Jean Valjean, the convicted thief (he stole bread to save his starving nephew) whose multidecade odyssey is the sprawling story's center of gravity. Bart Shatto, who has played Valjean on Broadway and across North America, handles it with great aplomb.

Shatto clearly has the musical range and dramatic sense to survey the part. If there is a downside, it's his tendency to occasionally growl a lyric, rather than belt or croon it. But that is nitpicking. Shatto's Valjean certainly makes the grade.

Valjean's bete noire, Javert - the religiously zealous police inspector who pursues Valjean through the decades of post-Revolutionary France - is likewise ably covered by Todd Alan Johnson, who also has a Broadway resumé. Johnson possesses the kind of chesty, masculine baritone that the role demands, and he exudes enough menacing authority and blind fealty to convincingly convey the character.

Among other cast members, Kelly McCormick is appropriately sympathetic as the doomed Fantine; Nicholas Cox serves up a callow, but effective, Marius (the student rebel who falls in love with Fantine's grown daughter, Cossette, whose guardian is Valjean); Yvonne Strumecki hits the mark as the comically lowlife Madame Thenardier; and 8-year-old Vincent Crocilla shines as Gavroche, the mascot (and master spy) of the revolutionaries.

On the other hand, while he is fine as rebel leader Enjolras, Scott Sowinski seems a bit too old to realistically portray someone in his late teens or early twenties.

Surflight Theatre, Beach and Engelside avenues, Beach Haven, 2 p.m. today, Sunday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. tomorrow, 2 and 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 609-492-9477,

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