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Toby's production does true justice to legend of 'Les Miserables'

By Mary Johnson, For The Baltimore Sun

8:01 PM EDT, August 15, 2013

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"Les Miserables" made history long ago.

The legendary musical won eight Tony Awards in 1987 — including Best Musical and Best Original Score, with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. It's the fourth-longest-running show in Broadway history, with about 6,680 performances in six years.

Now this masterpiece is making local theater history at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, as owner and artistic director Toby Orenstein takes on her most formidable challenge.

The intimate in-the-round theater space expands to meet the near-operatic demands of Victor Hugo's larger-than-life characters. Every aspect is first-rate, from a stellar ensemble to a brilliant behind-the-scenes team of directors, set designer, lighting and costume designer and assistants.

Based on Hugo's epic tale set in 19th-century France, the musical adaptation relates the life's journey of Jean Valjean, a peasant imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's child. After breaking parole, he is pursued by police Inspector Javert, and starts a new life with the help of a kindly bishop. Eventually he becomes mayor, rescues a dying woman, Fantine, from harsh justice, and promises to care for her daughter, Cosette.

Cosette grows into a lovely young lady, attracting revolutionary student Marius, who unknowingly is loved by another. The loves and lives come together in the battle at the barricades.

In Toby's production, the story is told entirely in song, drama and color. As in opera, the chorus is vital, and here a superb group delivers thundering emotion in "At the End of the Day," "One Day More," and the rousing "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and "Red and Black."

Music director Christopher Youstra summons nuanced emotion from this powerful cast. His six musicians produce a sound as rich as a Broadway orchestra.

As Valjean, Daniel Felton is superb, conveying intense emotion with honest authenticity. His rendition of "Bring Him Home" can only be described as thrilling.

As Inspector Javert, Lawrence Munsey delivers perhaps the finest performance of a stellar career, and offers insightful offstage work as the production's associate artistic director. Javert becomes a second leading man, proving Valjean's worthy rival in drama and delivering a stirring, soul-revealing "Soliloquy" that is breathtaking.

Munsey reveals glimpses of Javert's decency that illuminates this policeman who otherwise seems incapable of seeing gray in his black-and-white world.

Janine Sunday, as Fantine, creates a compelling portrayal of the unfortunate woman, expressed in her rendition of "Come to Me."

Eponine, who secretly loves Marius, is played by MaryKate Brouillet, who offers a heartfelt version of "On My Own" — perhaps the major song of the show.

Katie Heidbreder creates a sweet, well-mannered Cosette, whose innocent discovery of love for Marius is touchingly displayed in their duet "A Heart Full of Love."

Toby's familiar favorite Jeffrey Shankle rises to new heights as Marius. Tender in his duets with Eponine and Cosette and inspiring in his haunting rendition of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," Shankle produces several show-stopping moments.

David Bosley-Reynolds is convincing as the Factory Foreman, powerful in his despicable, abusive harassment of underlings. As the smarmy innkeeper couple, David James and Theresa Cunningham are comic standouts.

Young T.J. Langston and Jace Franco alternate in the role of messenger Gavroche, with Langston delivering a spirited performance as Gavroche at last Sunday's matinee.

Possessing an outstanding voice, Ben Lurye is well-cast as Enjoiras, who stirs students, and the audience, as he leads "Do You Hear the People Sing?" Tobias Young again proves his vocal prowess, adding substantially to the chorus.

"Les Miserables" continues through Nov. 10 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia. For reservations call 410-730-8311.