Have you seen Les Misérables? If answer is no, it’s time for a trip to Valdosta, GA’s Peach State Summer Theatre. Summer stock theatre is rare these days, so if you’d like to support this kind of theatre, even if you have seen Les Mis, the drive is a little under two hours from Jacksonville.
Les Misérables has a reputation as being one of the most depressing musicals, which I’ve always found to be unjust, as ultimately the message is one of hope, not in the system, but in individuals and their quest to be better people, despite a crushingly unfair world that may never change.
In 19th century France, Jean Valjean goes to prison (he stole a loaf of bread for his sister’s child, who was starving) does hard labor and tries to escape. A lot. It only adds to his sentence and he ends up serving 19 years. Fresh from prison, Jean is required to check in with parole officials and show papers to everyone he works for indicating he’s an ex-con. He breaks parole and builds a fake identity, all the while trying to prove that he’s worthy of redemption. Nipping at his heels through the years is Inspector Javert, a lawful neutral character who believes that the letter of the law is all, and no one who ever breaks the law can change or be good. Along the way, Valjean makes a pledge to protect the orphaned girl Cosette, who he hopes can restore his honor.Herb Porter handles playing Jean Valjean with the right mixture of guilt, passion and with the strong vocals needed to carry the role. The long-jawed Joe Hager portrays the righteous intensity of the obsessive Javert, also with great vocal talent.
In-the-loveable-but-totally-horrible rogues category, it’s plain that Michael J. Hegarty as Thenardier and Audrey Moore as Madame Thenardier have a great deal of fun onstage, and are highly entertaining. Hair and Wig design from Caroline Hatchett is especially whimsical with these two characters. I also can’t overlook Tyrell Ruffin’s Brujon, who while clearly not lovable, made me feel as though there wasn’t enough soap in the world to wash away his sliminess, an excellent addition to the lowest-of-the-low.
Fantine (Barbara Dare Thomas) rightly pulled on the heart-strings in her role, with solid singing and praise-worthy acting. ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ was performed with a good balance of emotion and pretty vocal work. Though the most popular versions of the musical most people have seen feature a brunette, this production sticks to the original portrayal in Hugo’s novel of Fantine. It’s always made more sense to me, as her bright blonde hair is more unusual than brunette, and the sale of her hair is an important plot point.Laurie Sutton as Cosette perfects the role of ingenue, hitting her notes with grace. Her love, the sweet idealist Marius (Britton Hollingsworth), seems very nearly sensible and less protected from the world by comparison, especially by the end of the play. Eponine (Holli Smith) strikes an emotionally visceral chord with her unrequited love. The actress knows her beats (or takes direction well from excellent directors who have worked with her on timing) and she’s a talented singer.
Despite the focus on the main characters, the message of Les Mis perishes on sloppy ensemble work, and this adept cast happily shows their skill. There’s always something interesting going on in the background, and the ensemble gives you the sense of the worlds these characters inhabit–for the world of the degraded prisoner differs much from the world of idealistic students, privileged enough to be able to fight injustice. All of the ensemble members did their due diligence on vocals and then some, with their splashiest work in Act II.
Many of the bit parts markedly contributed to the play as a whole–the brilliantly benevolent Karl Paoletti Jr. as the Bishop of Digne; Heather Priedhorsky’s turn as a spiteful factory girl was both well-played and sung; Drew Colman was notably arresting in the few lines of solo work he had, as were all the Friends of the ABC. Of course, the children playing young Cosette (Sofia Paoletti) young Eponine (Elle Scruggs) and Gavroche (John Laurent Dean) are absolutely adorable in their roles.
Sets were fairly integrated with lighting in setting scenes, with abstract and sometimes not so abstract projections on a large white scrim. Genny Wynn, who did the lighting design, didn’t always stick to the literal, as some of the designs were meant to show us the interior minds of the characters. The set design from Ruth A. Brandvik on the barricade in act II was both grounded and artful, setting the scene but still creating visual interest. I also enjoyed the more triangular design and the multiple levels as opposed to other more flat and linear designs I’ve seen for that particular set piece. Costumes from designer Rebecca Britton employed enough variation in styling to keep things interesting. I was specifically pleased with the sleeve holders on the men during the glass factory scene, a small thing, but it shows the level of attention to detail on the costume design.
Overall, the show was an enjoyable experience (and somewhat cathartic, we recommend bringing hankies for the crying). The only dim spot in the production were the fight scenes between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Because these fight scenes were a little longer and were meant to convey more menace than the small scuffles and bits in other portions of the play, it was important to the mood. It was as noticeable as it was because the rest of the production staging was so strong.
Valdosta is a little under two hours away from Jacksonville and Peach State Summer Theatre is one of the things that make it worth the trip, either for a weekend visit or a day trip. If you want to see their take on Les Misérables, it runs through June 28th. Please check their website for scheduling details. Otherwise, take a look at their full season this summer, which includes Always…Patsy Cline (June 17-July 18) and The Little Mermaid (July 3-19).
Where to park: You can park on campus in lots nearby to the Fine Arts Building. You may have to walk ½ block to a block. The Oak Street Parking Lot and Deck just west of the Fine Arts Building is a good place to find parking.
Address: Fine Arts Building 204 W. Brookwood Dr.
Valdosta, GA 31698
Box Office: 229-259-7770
Box Office Hours
Tuesday – Saturday
10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
10:00 AM – 1:00 PM