In an unusual coincidence, two of the world’s most famous sung-through musicals shared last Friday as their opening night on the local boards, with “Les Miserables” beginning a run at the ICC Theater in Douglaston and “Jesus Christ Superstar” taking over Gregorian Hall in Bellerose.
Presented by JABEN, USA Inc. and SuperNova Productions, “Les Miz” is being performed in the borough for the first time.
By now, the story, based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, is generally well known, particularly since the release of the recent film version with Hugh Jackman. For fullest appreciation, familiarity with this intricate tale is recommended prior to viewing.
The sprawling plot involves a dozen major characters involved in love, war, and, in the case of its protagonist, a French peasant named Jean Valjean, the quest for redemption following 19 years of imprisonment.
The production is one of the finest to be seen in this area in recent and not-so-recent memory. Under the direction of Kevin Wallace, the show is a standout in nearly every respect, with only a few innocuous quibbles on its unusually smooth opening night.
With virtually no spoken dialogue, the show rests to a large extent on the caliber of its musical talent. Musical director Patrick White has elicited a full sound from an ensemble of five musicians, as well as magnificent solos and harmonies from the cast of nearly 50. Each vocalist is to be commended on exceptional enunciation. Ray Nacarri provided the original orchestrations.
From start to finish, the hall is enveloped in the lush melodies and often stirring lyrics of the show’s creators, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg.
As Valjean, Andrew Koslosky raises his glorious tenor throughout. His musical monologue, “Who Am I?,” through which Valjean expresses his dilemma, “If I speak, I am condemned, If I stay silent, I am damned!,” is powerful. The famous “Bring Him Home,” wherein he prays for the well-being of a young man about to go to battle, is tender. And his musical confrontation with Valjean’s antagonist, Javert, proves a dramatically strong duet.
As a youthful Javert, Malcolm Spaulding nearly stopped the show with his rich rendition of “Stars,” vowing to recapture the fugitive Valjean.
Juan Luis Sanchez as Marius, the idealistic student who goes off to war, provides another strong male voice. He is particularly fine in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” in which he laments the loss of his comrades in battle.
Comic relief is provided by Don Gormanly and Monica Barczak as innkeeper-turned-gang leader Thenardier and his wife, whose coiffure calls to mind another evil character, Mrs. Lovett, of “Sweeney Todd” fame.
Their rollicking musical moment, “Master of the House,” performed with an increasingly inebriated ensemble, is filled with detailed bits of clever stage business timed to perfection. But the number never quite achieves the level of debauchery that is expected.
As the Thenardiers’ daughter, Eponine, Shannon Connolly delivers a heartfelt “On My Own” and a touching “A Little Fall of Rain,” while her sister, Joanna Connolly makes a sympathetic Cosette. Mariel Pacific as Cosette’s mother Fantine displays a fine singing voice in one of the show’s most celebrated songs, “I Dreamed a Dream.”
Other strong performances come from Dan Stravino as Enjolras, who prepares the idealistic students for the revolution; 11-year-old Karina Ordonez as Young Cosette, looking shockingly like the waif on the show’s famed logo; and, in leading ensemble roles, David Arzberger, Richard Masin, and John Rodriguez.
The mobile set and appropriate costumes added to the show’s professional look. Delayed sound cues and a couple of missed lighting cues did little to hamper the overall effectiveness of the production.
The story spans decades and several characters age throughout the proceedings, either via double casting or makeup. Others, however, look as young and attractive at the end as they did at the outset, a detail that should perhaps be examined.
The other current sung-through attraction, with music by the undisputed champion of the genre, Andrew Lloyd Webber, is one of his earlier works, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” now being revived by St. Gregory’s Theatre Group, which mounted a memorable production of the show 14 years ago.
Webber wrote the show with frequent collaborator, lyricist Tim Rice, basing it loosely on the Gospels’ accounts of the last week in the life of Jesus and ending with the Crucifixion. The show, which made its Broadway debut in 1971, remains one of the most controversial theatrical rock operas of all time, due, in large part, to the depiction of some of its characters.
The show focuses primarily on the shared story of Jesus and Judas Iscariot, as seen through the eyes of the musical’s creators. Despite the show’s title, it is Judas who often finds himself in the spotlight.
The show, like “Les Miz,” is best understood by those with prior knowledge of the subject matter, and, like its source, allows much room for interpretation, and, indeed, encourages intentional anachronisms.
Director Kathy Rollo Ferrara, once again at the helm, has added contemporary touches here that give the show, and its story of man’s fears, desires and choices, a modern feel. The concert-style lighting, traces of hip-hop and the inclusion of smartphones in one scene are among the innovations.
During the overture, the characters in the piece are introduced. The pageantry that unfolds over the next two hours is a sight to behold, as Rollo Ferrara is particularly adept at painting interesting stage pictures.
In fact, the show’s entire physical setup, which, like the earlier incarnation, utilizes the large floor space that is Gregorian Hall as its playing area, serves to bring unusual intimacy between the performers and the spectators, who are seated three-quarters in the round. For best sight lines, seats on the elevated platforms are advised.
Adding to the feeling of involvement are the entrances of cast members via makeshift entryways and the placement of the band among the scaffold-like setting, where the musicians remain fully visible throughout.
The show is filled with nonstop movement and several full-fledged production numbers. Rollo Ferrara and a team of choreographers are responsible for the impressive synchronization of the large, multigenerational cast of around 50.
Among the more memorable of the large numbers, several of which take on a carnival-like feel, are “Hosanna,” marking the exultant arrival of Jesus and his followers to Jerusalem; “King Herod’s Song,” in which the flamboyant king mockingly asks Jesus to prove his divinity; and “Superstar,” the show’s rousing anthem which features simple but effective movement.
All of the performers are totally committed to their respective roles, from the leads to the youngest members of the youth ensemble.
In the title role, David Burkard displays tremendous emotion, most particularly in the evening’s dramatic highlight, the Crucifixion. His musical zenith is reached in his forceful rendering of “Gethsemane,” in which he sings, “I will drink your cup of poison, nail me to the cross and break me.”
Steven Makropoulos lets loose a strong rocker-gritty voice as Judas. A duet with Burkard, “The Last Supper,” is a powerful musical confrontation between the two.
As Mary Magdalene, Amanda Dupuy displays a sweet voice in the show’s most famous song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”
Joseph Sanges proves a more powerful actor than singer as Pontius Pilate. Carnell Angel is a strong presence as the high priest Caiaphas, who sees Jesus as a threat. Carlos Ponce as Annas, a fellow priest, puts his tenor to good use throughout.
At Saturday night’s performance, the band was conducted by Marc Levenson, the associate musical director, who offered strong support to the musicians and vocalists.
The set design by Todd Wilkerson is simple by SGTG standards, but serves its purpose. Marjorie Wilkerson has whipped up a wide assortment of costumes, combining both the traditional and modern. Ben Green’s lighting scheme helps set the tone from beginning to end.
Special word must be accorded the curtain calls, perhaps the most beautifully staged in years, and the follow-up encore reminiscent of the love-in at the end of the recent Broadway revival of “Hair.” All that was missing was an invitation to the audience to join in.
When: Aug. 8, 9, 10 at 8 p.m.
Where: Immaculate Conception Center Theater, 7200 Douglaston Pkwy., Douglaston
Tickets: $25; $35 VIP seating
‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
When: Aug. 7, 8, 9, 10 at 8 p.m., Aug. 11 at 2 p.m.
Where: Gregorian Hall, 244-44 87 Ave., Bellerose
Tickets: Advance: $18; $15 seniors; $7 children; $2 more at the door