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Theatre Review: "Les Mis" at NKU is 'Muscular, Emotionally Satisfying'

Les Miserables is getting a lean, muscular, and emotionally satisfying revival at Northern Kentucky University, with director Ken Jones clearing the stage of everything but human drama and soaring song.
 
Within the strict structure of beloved Les Mis​, Victor Hugo’s classic that tells of the hell on Earth suffered by the poor of France in the first decades of the 1800s, Jones manages to surprise again and again. 
 
One of the things that makes Jones one of the best directors in the region is his remarkable understanding of performing space. It’s here in Les Mis – which he makes vertical with the support of a 10-foot curving riser at the rear of the stage. It’s fitted with “shelves” for cast members to stand and move on. Further up and forward is a catwalk. 
 
In the big chorus numbers, the NKU stage is literally filled. Music director Jamey Strawn and choreographer Roderick Justice complete the show’s focused and beautifully executed artistic vision.
 
NKU’s theater department (which Jones heads) puts acting first, and one of the ongoing joys of the shows is the clarity and believability of character and relationships. 
 
This Les Mis packs enough of an emotional punch that I half-expected a standing ovation at intermission, following the show’s powerful build-to-the-act’s-finale and anthem “One More Day.”
 
The Les Mis principal cast meets the musical’s challenge. Jones has cast what should be a ringer in the key role of Jean Valjean, our noble hero who has stolen a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child and who is punished with decades at hard labor. We meet him when he is given parole; he quickly has a life-changing experience – or at least an experience that returns him to the man he was always meant to be.
 
Jason Vest, a member of the NKU voice faculty, is a splendid Valjean. What’s unexpected is that NKU student Brandon Huber as his fanatical nemesis Inspector Javert keeps up with him. He owns his scenes – and even earns pity. 
 
Strawn impresses again as he oversees the perfectly attuned vocal work (which is also emotional character work) by soloists and ensemble. Strawn conducts an able orchestra of fewer than a dozen musicians, who drive the show forward.
 
Justice knows the trick of making stage movement and dance fit the moment. It’s high energy with inventive flourishes – but never pulls focus away from the fast-moving action.
 
The key cast members perform with unfailing honesty and strong singing: Kathryn Miller as tragic Fantine; Miki Abraham as Eponine, a heroine suffering from unrequited love; Noah Berry’s Marius is filled with righteous passion for the downtrodden and romantic passion for Cosette, smart and spunky as played by Sophie Dewald. 
 
Other stand-out performances come from Jack Manion as sleazy villain Thenardier, Cason Walden as student leader Enjorlas and the youngest members of the cast, Olivia Bayer as Little Cosette and Hank Slaby as street urchin Gavroche. 
 
The design team does strong work, starting with Ronnie Chamberlain who puts endless costume and costume pieces on the company. Applause also to lighting designed Bobby Harrell, sound designer Kevin Havlin and scenic designer Rob Kerby. 
 
Les Mis, through March 1. SOLD OUT – but, the weather forecast continues to be miserable through Saturday. REQUEST TO TICKET HOLDERS: If you’re not going to use your tickets, call the box office and release them. Anyone interested in seeing Les Mis, give the box office a call and see if any tickets have been released. 
 
FEB. 20 PERFORMANCE WILL GO ON although NKU is closed. For reservations and information call the box office at 859-572-5464 (although the box office is closed when the university is closed) and online here. Tickets: $14 adults, $11 seniors, $8 students.
 
Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
 
Photo provided