Simple staging yields rich story

The year is 1832. The country is on the brink of revolution and violence soon erupts in the form of the June Rebellion. 

As guns fire and death ensues, another battle rages at the forefront, one of the heart and mind that swims through the veins of “Les Misérables.”  

The College-Conservatory of Music premiered its production of Victor Hugo’s classic tale Thursday evening, breathing life into the show’s timeless characters with the skill and captivation of a Broadway show. 

CCM’s production stayed true to what seasoned viewers expect of “Les Mis,” engaging characters, heart-wrenching laments and passionate rivalry. The show quickly dispelled any concerns that it would stray from the classic plot, sticking to the original in storyline, character and song. 

Major differences in CCM’s performances were in stage production. Instead of moving stages and special effects that have become commonplace in performances of “Les Mis,” CCM reverted to simple props and ingenious stage design, resulting in beautiful effects. 

The play opened with more than a dozen wooden chairs overturned onstage; the props believably transformed into heavy loads lifted by inmates in Bagne Prison during the opening scene. 

A stained glass window was perched at the top of the set, and staircases and decorations like a sculpture of the head of a horse created a minimalist, intriguing setup.

A chill-worthy rendition of “Look Down” set the bar high for the evening, and expectations raised even higher when main character Jean Valjean, portrayed on opening night by Blaine Krauss, took the stage.  

Krauss depicted Valjean with ease, vividly portraying emotion and making connections with audience members throughout his character’s transformation from angry inmate to Cosette’s father figure.   

While his performance was particularly strong from the beginning of the play, his presentation grew in strength throughout the evening. His rendition of “Take Him Home” elevated him above multiple performances including an installment at the Aronoff Center in 2012. 

Valjean’s emotional performances and those of other characters, however, raise the need for comic relief, given in the form of Thénardier and Madame Thénardier. 

The innkeepers, depicted by Matthew Hill and Emily Schexnaydre, are an eccentric pair that blames their sufferings on society. 

Humorous and cunning, Hill and Schexnaydre had audiences rooting for the bad guys; their portrayal was smart and likable, and their performance of “Master of the House” was one of the best of the evening. 

Eric Geil also gave a particularly notable performance as Marius Pontmercy; his ringing voice and believable optimism perfectly captured the personality of Cosette’s love interest.

The overall standout of Thursday’s performance, however, was Collin Kessler, who played the revenge-driven inspector Javert on opening night. 

With a booming voice and powerful stage presence, Kessler demanded attention and consistently captured perfect pitch and emotion.

One of the most iconic scenes of  “Les Mis” is Javert’s suicide, which occurs shortly after Valjean lets the inspector escape with his life. At this point in the play, special effects or a moving stage are frequently utilized to create the illusion of water underneath the bridge Javert jumps from. 

In CCM’s performance, a much more impactful effect was created by nothing but a ladder, a window and the screened image of a black sky and stars. 

As a whole, Thursday’s performance had very few hiccups; ignoring a few minor microphone mishaps and timing issues, the cast experienced a nearly flawless opening night.  The play achieved grandeur by capturing the story’s smallest details. 

An exemplary cast, a familiar plot and simple props created an unforgettable work of art.