Jean Valjean (Jordan Donica, left) and Javert (Hayden Clifton) face off in Otterbein’s production of Les Miserables (photo by Todd Yarrington)
If last year’s film version didn’t convince you that Les Miserables belongs on the stage, maybe Otterbein will. Sure, the film was beautiful, and yes, Anne Hathaway was magnificent as Fantine. But after she took her leave, the rest seemed anti-climactic. On the Otterbein stage, though, director Dennis Romer and his cast rediscover the heart that’s needed to make the Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schonberg musical touch us all over again. Meanwhile, the music soars thanks to a slew of good singers and a full-sized orchestra performing under Lori Kay Harvey’s sensitive baton. Set before and during France’s June Rebellion of 1832, Les Miz begins just as Jean Valjean (Jordan Donica) is being released after serving 19 years on a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread. But he’s not completely free, as he soon discovers his status as an ex-con prevents him from finding work. Valjean retaliates by stealing from a bishop (John Henry Carter) who shows him kindness. It’s only after the bishop responds to the crime with even more kindness that Valjean vows to turn his life around while simultaneously taking on a new identity. If you’ve seen Les Miz several times, as most theatergoers have, it’s hard not to compare the actors to those who played their iconic roles before them. In this respect, Otterbein’s production stands up well. To begin with, Donica may well be the best Jean Valjean you’ve ever seen. His impressive height makes it easy to believe he’s capable of the fugitive’s celebrated feats of strength, and he carries himself with sad dignity. As for the acid test—the Act 2 solo Bring Him Home, with its impossibly high notes—he sings it beautifully. As Javert, the police official who dogs Valjean through the years, Hayden Clifton is a chilling image of rigid authority. As Fantine, the single mom who sacrifices her health to keep her young daughter fed and housed, Marina Pires is a heartbreaking figure. She performs her big solo, I Dreamed a Dream, competently, if not powerfully enough to reach showstopper status. Speaking of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, she’s played as a girl by Sophia Caraline Ribar, the first of two young actors who charm the audience with their feisty talent. The other is Kellan Behrens, who appears later on as Parisian street urchin Gavroche. As the Thenardiers, the unscrupulous innkeepers whom Fantine paid to care for Cosette, Alex Huffman and Corinne Munsch provide comic relief without neglecting the pair’s darker side. In lesser productions of Les Miz, interest tends to wane when an aging Valjean and Cosette, now his adopted ward, move to Paris and become involved with revolution-minded students. Not so here, thanks largely to the youthful fervor Heather Dell and James Sanders display as the adult Cosette and her newfound admirer, Marius. Their musical numbers—including Marius’s Act 2 lament, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables—are some of the show’s strongest. More power is added by the golden-voiced Jared Howelton as student leader Enjolras, but Lizzie Wild’s self-conscious theatricality mars her otherwise appealing portrayal of the unloved Eponine. Not surprisingly, Otterbein’s staging lacks the technical complexity of professional productions, but Rob Johnson’s handsome and versatile set makes up for it by allowing seamless scene changes. That’s important in this sung-through musical, which rarely pauses long enough for applause. At the end of the opening-night performance, the audience made up for lost time by giving the cast an enthusiastic and well-deserved standing ovation. Otterbein University Theatre will present Les Miserables at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday in Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or