‘Les Miz’ brings legacy to Utah

Musical took decade of planning

Jinger Axelson is Scout and Martin Kildare plays Atticus Finch in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Enlarge photo

Photos courtesy of Karl Hugh/Utah Shakespeare Fest

Jinger Axelson is Scout and Martin Kildare plays Atticus Finch in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The world’s most beloved and popular musical, “Les Misérables,” will finally appear on the Utah Shakespeare Festival stage. Having been produced in 42 countries, collected hundreds of awards and breathless reviews, “Les Miz” is still going strong after more than 25 years. It’s taken a decade of planning, but now Utah’s well-regarded Shakespearean festival will stage this 20th century masterpiece.

To see “Les Miz” in Cedar City, a day’s drive away on divided highways, is just too good to be true. And then there are the other five productions, all playing in repertory.

The two Shakespearean offerings balance high humor with dark vengeance. “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is a comedic romp. If you haven’t seen it, the title characters play tricks on their husbands and upon Sir John Falstaff, that oversized, mischief-making life force.

Tradition has it that none other than Queen Elizabeth I put out a challenge for a play featuring Falstaff in love. The result, if true, is “Merry Wives”, and it lives up to its reputation as an oddball, off-center romantic comedy.

“Titus Andronicus” may be Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy. The Roman general of the title is pushed by events toward madness and unspeakable inhumanity. Like Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy,” “Titus Andronicus” was enormously popular in its time, partly because of the cutthroat competition at its dark heart and its extreme violence.

Some scholars have argued that “Titus” is not a great play, but, by golly, it can be great theater. Veteran Shakespearean actor and director Henry Woronicz directs with Equity actor Dan Kremer as Titus.

Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart” presents the quintessential battle of the queens. Elizabeth I will not brook Mary Queen of Scots, and a mighty power struggle ensues. The festival will present a new version by Peter Oswald based on Schiller’s masterwork. Performed in period dress, the new version will look like Elizabethan drama, but probably feel more like a modern-day thriller.

Adapted from Moliére’s classic French farce, a new version of “Scapin” by Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell may be both familiar and fresh. The famous clown and comic writer have kept all the French stepping stones of the original and tossed in a few ripe banana peels.

Scapin is a cunning servant surrounded by his dim and often frustrated betters. David Ivers, co-artistic director at USF, is one of the best comedic actors around. Expect to be won over by some fresh topical humor, quirky characters in increasingly tight circumstances, and even some improvisation.

This season’s contemporary play on the roster is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Based on Harper Lee’s novel, the play, adapted by Christopher Sergel, has been produced all over the country.

Set in the South during the Great Depression, “Mockingbird” is a quintessential American drama about racism, intolerance and the dark and light of community living. Atticus Finch will be played by Martin Kildare.

Anticipating a huge demand for “Les Misérables,” the festival has wisely scheduled an extended run. The musical will open June 27 and run through Oct. 19. Based on the Victor Hugo novel, it’s an epic saga of war and peace, love and sacrifice. Centering on Jean Valjean, the story portrays the continuous human struggle to live uprightly and seek justice.

Valjean will always be a contemporary character because when faced with dilemmas, he summons his conscience and probes his true identity for the answer.

In one of the work’s most moving songs, Valjean poses the problem he faces and repeatedly asks: “Who am I?” For the 19th century, Valjean was the quintessential Everyman of the age. Because of “Les Miz,” he has become the Everyman of our era.

A veteran of American musical theater, J. Michael Bailey, will sing the lead role. Soprano Melinda Pfundstein will portray Fantine and baritone Brian Vaughn will bring Inspector Javert to life.

To see this musical under the banner of USF with its 51-year commitment to excellence will be worth the drive to southern Utah.

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at jreynolds@durangoherald.com.

David Ivers (top) as Scapin and Matt Zambrano as Sylvestre in “Scapin.” Enlarge photo

Karl Hugh/Utah Shakespeare Festival

David Ivers (top) as Scapin and Matt Zambrano as Sylvestre in “Scapin.”