By Mike Giuliano
6:05 AM EDT, August 15, 2013
The storming of a barricade is the dramatic highlight of the Broadway musical "Les Miserables." There's likely to be a storming of the box office at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, whose exciting production qualifies as one of its best shows in recent years.
It's an ambitious musical to stage in any theater, so doing it at an in-the-round dinner theater is a bold move. Co-directors Toby Orenstein and Steven Fleming skillfully handle the complicated traffic management. There are 24 actors negotiating a compact performance space that's also occupied by the moving platforms deployed as prison cells, cafes, living quarters and, of course, the barricade erected in an early 19th-century Paris street.
Those who have seen the Broadway version surely will wonder how its imposing wood-and-rubble barricade will be done in this in-the-round staging. A tough conceptual decision is involved here, because you can't have a barrier blocking too much of the action. Although several wheeled metal platforms and a few pieces of wood adequately function as a barricade in the Toby's production, it would benefit from more wood planks, barrels and just plain junk.
On the plus side, it's easy for the performers to move around this barricade and for viewers to see through it. Again, traffic keeps moving.
Credit for the smooth-flowing traffic also goes to music director Christopher Youstra, whose five-member band produces a fuller sound than its numbers might indicate. There's a propulsive charge to the playing that insistently kicks the sprawling, Victor Hugo novel-derived story forward. And surely this band's committed playing of the Claude-Michel Schonberg score has a lot to do with the fervor or the cast's full-throated singing.
This local staging consequently brings out more of the show's emotional power than some of the sleekly packaged, machine-tooled touring Broadway companies that have come through the area. Dinner theater audience members whose just-consumed meal includes a basket of rolls will find themselves rooting for the hero of "Les Miserables," Jean Valjean, who receives a severe prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread.
Valjean's subsequent changes in fortune and, indeed, identity are so abundant that they could, er, fill a book, and "Les Miz" occasionally does have an overstuffed quality to it. This musical's 90-minute-long first act does what it can to accommodate the story told in Hugo's lengthy novel. The compelling story fortunately always holds your attention, and the score's near-operatic blend of pop arias and orchestral underscoring also keeps you tuned into the show.
Schonberg's music calls on the cast to hit high note after high note, and the lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer are dispensed in a fast and furious manner. Admirably rising to the occasion, Daniel Felton gives a terrific performance as Jean Valjean. His singing is totally secure in songs including "Who Am I?" and "Bring Him Home," his acting relies on emotional conviction and not just periodically changing Valjean's hair styles; and his matinee idol appearance also does its part to make him a heroic figure up against a repressive regime during this French story's timeline running from 1815 to 1832.
As Javert, the police inspector who pursues Valjean through the decades, Lawrence B. Munsey has the requisite blustery personality and booming vocal delivery. Although Munsey's timing needs fine-tuning in a few numbers, this is a strong performance that makes his Javert a worthy adversary for Felton's Valjean.
When the parole-breaking Valjean assumes a new name and becomes a factory owner and major, he looks out for the best interests of workers including the troubled Fantine. Janine Sunday conveys the pathos of this character, especially in Fantine's song "I Dreamed a Dream."
Valjean also takes an interest in Fantine's child, Cosette, whose challenges in life are deftly communicated in Katie Heidbreder's fine performance.
The acting is a more mixed equation with an untrustworthy inn-managing couple. Thenardier is meant to be a foolish character bringing much-needed comic relief to this overwhelmingly serious story, but David James could do a lot more with Thenardier's silly behavior. Faring better in the comic relief department is Theresa Cunningham as his wife, Madame Thenardier.
The Thenardier's daughter, Eponine, is portrayed by MaryKate Brouillet. Whether speaking her dialogue or singing "On My Own," this actor seems overly self-conscious with her emotional transitions, but one suspects that the performance will mature during this long-running production.
Eponine is in love with a student named Marius, who is engagingly portrayed by Jeffrey S. Shankle. When he beautifully sings "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," Shankle makes Marius seem as worthy of attention as the lead characters.
A tightly coordinated ensemble is convincing as students, prisoners, sailers, cops, drinkers, wedding guests, criminals, factory workers, whores and pimps.
"Les Miserables" runs through Nov. 10 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road. Prices are $49- $54 for adults, $35.50 for children 12 and under; group rates are available. Call 410-730-8311 or go to http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun