‘Les Miserables’ production sparkles

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD  -- Jason Dowies, left, one of two actors cast as Jean Valjean, performs a scene with Jessica Wax as Fantine in 'Les Miserables.'
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Jason Dowies, left, one of two actors cast as Jean Valjean, performs a scene with Jessica Wax as Fantine in 'Les Miserables.'

When a community theater takes on something like “Les Miserables,” one of two things is bound to happen.

It could seem a pale imitation of productions that — through traveling theatrical groups, cinema and television — have brought this fantastic play to those who will never venture to New York’s or London’s great stages. Or, the theater will find the right people, and those people will find talents that had not been tapped so successfully before.

Thankfully, the latter is mostly the case for Theatre Baton Rouge’s summer musical, which opened last weekend. If some technical issues get resolved, “mostly” can mostly be removed from that appraisal. Keith Dixon directs.

Musically, this is as good as anything the company formerly known as Baton Rouge Little Theater has done in at least 15 years. Not only do the solos sparkle, but the chorus under Terry Bowman’s direction has the power, quality and clarity of voice to take these memorable, emotional songs and make them soar. Even if the audience came blindfolded, the concert alone would be worth the ticket and the three-hour time investment.

Jason Dowies and Derrick Stevens alternate nights as Jean Valjean, the former criminal who struggles to escape his past despite having become a changed man. Dowies is no stranger to TBR patrons, having starred in previous musicals, and he’s never been better. This is a demanding acting and singing role, and Dowies excels at both. The high point is his tender solo, “Bring Him Home,” which Dowies ... brings home.

Jessica Wax, a sparkling soprano, is great as the tragic Fantine, most memorably in “I Dreamed a Dream.” Bess Yunek portrays Cosette, Fantine’s daughter whom Valjean has adopted, and though she is not the teenager that her character was, her mature voice and wide-eyed innocence make one almost forget that. TBR newcomer Kyle Moffatt is strong as Marius, the young student and revolutionary who falls in love with her in a chance encounter, much to the disappointment of Eponine, played creditably by Lily McGill.

Steven Fox alternates with Chip Davis as Javert, the French police inspector who relentlessly pursues Valjean for breaking parole after having served 19 years for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving son. Fox has an able voice and the bearing suitable for the hard-hearted Javert. Weston Twardowski also has great presence as Enjolras, the leader of the students who have decided to rebel against the monarchy.

Much of the play alternates between the tragic and the poignant, but there is room for comedy, almost all of which is supplied by Daniel Palmintier as the odious, opportunistic Thenardier and Dana Todd Lux as his wife. Whether he is cheating his boarding house patrons or stealing from corpses, Palmintier’s Thenardier does it all with an evil twinkle in his eye. And Lux, whose tremendous voice is little used in this role, instead gets in touch with her inner Carol Burnett to make the audience smile.

There would be even more smiles if the sound were more consistent. “Les Miserables” has numerous scenes when brief solos shift rapidly among the ensemble cast, many of whom couldn’t be heard when it was their turn. Other times, as with Gerard Killebrew’s first appearance as the Bishop, his volume overpowered those opposite him.