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Marvelous 'Les Miserables' leads UFOMT season

By Jay Wamsley

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, July 19 2014 3:30 p.m. MDT

A publicity photo for Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's 2014 production of "Oklahoma!"

Paul Waldron, Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre

"LES MISERABLES," through Aug. 9; "VANESSA," through Aug. 2; "OKLAHOMA!," through Aug. 8; "THE STUDENT PRINCE," through Aug. 9; Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre, 59 S. 100 West, Logan, $12-$76 (435-750-0300 or utahfestival.org)

It’s easy to see which of the four offerings of the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre season is considered the blockbuster, the one to see. Check out the schedule: “The Student Prince” is set for five showings, and “Vanessa” is scheduled for four. “Oklahoma!” will be staged eight times in the 30-day summer calendar of the UFOMT.

But “Les Miserables,” perhaps the most recognizable of the four major productions, is set for 14 performances — and for good reason. Not only is “Les Miserables” a story known to a wide range of potential patrons, it also is far and away the premier presentation of this UFOMT season — and one of the top-drawer productions in the company’s 22 years.

“Les Miserables”

Even professional nit-pickers would have an extremely hard time finding fault with this nearly perfect “Les Miserables.” It is as close to flawless in both production and performances as could be witnessed. In fact, the UFOMT company is, according to founder Michael Ballam, the first opera company in the United States to be granted permission to perform the famed musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, which is based on the time-honored novel by Victor Hugo. And that opportunity has not been wasted.

Considerable credit goes to director Valerie Rachelle and conductor Karen Keltner for their inspired and almost relentless pacing of the production. This staging of a very involved production moves quickly and actively, and passions are high in both movements and voice by all involved. The powerful opening scene is an attention-getter, and the attention of the audience is riveted to the Ellen Eccles Stage from that point on.

Keltner never lets the score rest, bouncing and urging the orchestra to put passion into their pieces. Scenes meld from one to the next so precisely and quickly that a usually clap-happy Cache Valley audience could not keep up between numbers, opting to hold their applause on opening night to reward extra-big moments, of which there were plenty. Set changes were fascinatingly efficient, and set designs were simple enough to leave much to the imaginations of audience members.

Some memorable performances include Wes Mason as Bishop Myriel, whose rich voice and perfect projection reminded Jean Valjean that his soul had been purchased. Stefan Espinosa and Vanessa Schukis are scene-stealing stars as the Thenardiers, and that couple’s performance — and leading of a busy ensemble — of the familiar “Master of the House” is very memorable. As Inspector Javert, Daniel Cilli becomes master of the low register, and his strong bass and equally strong performance end up making him, ironically, a crowd favorite.

Before the season started, Ballam noted that he had hoped and was announced to be taking on the role of Jean Valjean. However, as the 2014 season approached, he said, “We have been presented with an extraordinary opportunity to have a world-class performer step into the role … that will enthrall us all.” That performer ended up being Patrick Miller, winner of a Grammy Award and a performer with the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Miller was riveting and powerful and moved through the several stages of Valjean’s life and dilemmas with a combination of ease and power, proving Ballam correct.

It should be noted that Tyler Olshansky as Eponine is a memorable cog in this cast. Olshansky sings with what appears to be ease, never straining to hit notes but never missing, demonstrating a voice that feels soft around the edges and that patrons could listen to for much longer than what was called for by her character’s stage time.

“Vanessa”

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