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Stage Review

Flaws aside, 'Les Miz' scores with fans

Fred Inkley (with Charles Hagerty) sings 'Bring Him Home' during the North Shore Music Theatre production. Fred Inkley (with Charles Hagerty) sings "Bring Him Home" during the North Shore Music Theatre production. (Paul Lyden)

BEVERLY - Who am I to find fault with an international phenomenon that over the past 22 years has grossed billions and wowed multimillions? Just someone who grew up on opera and is thus apparently impervious to the allure of a couple of catchy tunes wrapped in yards of clumsy recitative. But the people have spoken - including the avid crowd who attended opening night for "Les Misérables" at North Shore Music Theatre.

In his first project as artistic director, Barry Ivan - whose score of prior NSMT credits includes such knockouts as 2006's "Damn Yankees" - has gathered 30 mostly strong singers, from North Shore native Joanna Rosen as a thankfully unaffected young Cosette, to Broadway vet Fred Inkley in the central role of Jean Valjean.

True to Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, Valjean spends a lifetime paying for a loaf of bread that he stole to feed his starving nephew. Nineteen years of hard labor would have seemed sufficient; instead the show hinges on the doggedness of one Inspector Javert (Devin Richards), who devotes his life to tracking down the paroled miscreant once Valjean sheds his past persona to become a prosperous burgher.

One major flaw in this production is that, in an apparent effort to underscore the similarities between Valjean and Javert - both are essentially men of honor, however misapplied - Ivan has allowed Richards the latitude to play Javert as a good guy who's just a bit rigid, rather than tormented and obsessed. This shift throws off the whole balance. Moreover, Richards seems far more interested in showing off his admittedly rich bass than in connecting emotionally with the character.

The one performer who truly opens herself to her role - fully inhabiting it, and not just acing a familiar set piece - is Joanne Javien as the lovelorn Eponine. Charles Hagerty is effective as the object of her affection, the student rebel Marius, as is Charlie Brady as his cohort Enjolras. As Marius's own beloved-at-first-sight, the now-grown Cosette, Renée Brna employs a warbly soprano that brings to mind Jeanette MacDonald. And doesn't it seem just a bit ironic that the culmination of their mutual devotion is a haute-bourgeois wedding feast populated by the very toffs whom Marius and his fellow hotheads so recently strove to overthrow?

Whatever - maybe logic is too much to ask, but a little more dazzle wouldn't be amiss. Compared to past productions, this staging in the round does little to enhance the drama. Too many soliloquies take place as the singer stands still on the revolving outer edge. The device affords everyone a good view en passant, but it's a static choice: The actors would seem more engaged were they required to move about and reach out to the encircling audience. The arena effect also unfortunately makes the rebels' barricade - a loose corral of scrapwood sculptures - look like a very foolish venture indeed: They're surrounded before they've begun.

Though musical director Anne Shuttlesworth has done a great job suppressing the "Idol"-style melismata that mar too many performances today, I could kvetch that Inkley - though suitably earnest and occasionally affecting as Valjean - is about one top note shy of the range required by the role (composer Claude-Michel Schönberg sure loves leaping octaves). The voice I could have used a lot more of was that of ensemble member Danny Rothman as the saintly Bishop of Digne, but it's just a cameo.

At three hours, with a break for intermission, the sung-through show seems riddled with longueurs - although true fans will likely find that the time flies by.

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Les Misérables

Musical in two acts by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg

Directed by: Barry Ivan. Set, Michael Anania. Lights, David Neville. Costumes, Robert Fletcher.

At North Shore Music Theatre, through Nov. 18. Tickets: $40-$75. 978-232-7200, nsmt.org

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