Ah yes, the barricade. The red flags of rebellion waving. The anthemic call to the people to "join in our crusade." The flash and fire of politics and historical sweep may have distinguished Les Misérables from its megamusical brethren, but when the smoke clears from the Parisian streets, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's pop opera is really much more a personal story, exploring the intimate relationships of a father and daughter, that daughter and the student who loves her, that student and the young woman who loves him unrequitedly, a policeman and the escaped convict who eludes him. That may have always been true, but it's certainly more apparent in the intimacy of Zach's Topfer Theatre, where we're close enough to catch the small gestures between these figures and the searching looks in their eyes.
And it turns out that those personal moments are where Zach Theatre's production truly sings: Paul Sanchez as the Bishop of Digne gently and compassionately covering for a desperate Jean Valjean who has stolen from him; Traci Lee's Éponine, aglow as she imagines the caress of the man who cannot return her love; Andrew Cannata as that man, Marius, the lone survivor of his student army, bitterly noting his comrades' absence. Oh, Joshua Denning surely stokes the revolutionary flames as student rebel Enjolras, and when he tears into "Do You Hear the People Sing?" – which, if you can't have "The Marseillaise," is as irresistible as populist anthems get – you'll find his fervor igniting your own egalitarian zeal. And director Matt Lenz and choreographer Greg Graham move the nearly three dozen performers fluidly through the tale's swirl of settings, even without a turntable to ease the task, as in so many other stagings. But every so often, the normally attentive chorus lets its sense of the stakes slip, and the tension goes slack, as in the defense of the barricade, when, save for the passionate Denning and Cannata, the rebels stand about as casually as if they were manning a parade float of the June Rebellion. More gripping is the aftermath of battle, when Javert, the hound of the law relentlessly chasing the ex-con Valjean, carries in the lifeless form of the child Gavroche. The tenderness with which Nicholas Rodriguez lays down the body of this boy, who minutes earlier exposed him as a spy, makes us reconsider everything we think we know about this stony-hearted inspector.
Indeed, Javert comes off as unexpectedly soulful here, with Rodriguez's eyes as haunted as if he were the pursued rather than the pursuer. In his compelling rendition of "Stars," Javert's ode to our celestial judges, his determination seems borne of a desperate need to atone for some secret sin of his own. Meanwhile, Valjean, who's typically the caring, empathetic foil to Javert's heartless hunter, comes off as the disconnected one; whenever Pat McRoberts is engaged with someone else, his gaze invariably drifts away, as if Valjean has gotten lost in his own head, in the concern for his own salvation. He sings beautifully – indeed, the singing here, as directed by Allen Robertson, is uniformly lovely – but there's a surprising aloofness to his actions. We may welcome his redemption, but we're more moved by the eyes that lock in love, that long for a mate, that flare with fury.
Copyright © 2016 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.