Ever since the announcement last fall that Sierra Repertory Theatre would open its 35th anniversary season with "Les Misérables," local theaters-goers have been giddy with anticipation.
The iconic, operatic extravaganza by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michael Schönberg was a blockbuster on Broadway and a top-selling movie in 2013. For this reason - not to mention Victor Hugo's 1862 novel - most of those attending the first Sunday matinee knew the complicated story of police inspector Javert's relentless pursuit of former prisoner Jean Valjean.
A van full of jazz vocalists from College of the Siskiyous were among those who were not altogether familiar with the story. However, the group, in town for the Columbia College Vocal Jazz Festival, were music aficionados abuzz with enthusiasm, and they had made reservations for the play before traveling to Sonora.
The East Sonora lobby teemed with palatable excitement. Only at a regional theater are you likely to overhear the relatives of the actors - the mother of young Cosette and the aunt and uncle of Jean Valjean - sharing their elation before the show.
Once in the theater after the usual announcements, the chattering audience hushed, but as the wait stretched out the hum renewed. The jazz vocalists discussed the story synopsis that appears in the program and folks talked about seeing "Les Miz" in other venues.
When sound operator Mark Seiver trotted from his booth, those who recognized him realized something was amiss. He reappeared, followed by stage manager Doug Brennan, who announced that technical difficulties would soon be fixed.
After a shriek of extended feedback, the lights finally went down and the word "Prologue" appeared amidst the folds of a gauzy panel. The audience - not in the least perturbed - settled back to enjoy the three-hour show.
Director Dennis Jones was certain that audiences would be "swept up in the emotion of the production" in the intimate 200-seat venue. And he was absolutely right. The splendid score and a cast of 32 phenomenal vocalists enthralled viewers that afternoon.
Jones, who also designed the set, intensified the intimacy by creating a short platform jutting from the stage that allows actors at prime moments to be closer still to the audience.
The large, exceptionally talented cast manages the operatic scope of the material so that every song is thrilling. Of course, the principals, Cliff McCormick as Jean Valjean and Eric Jon Mahlum as Javert, are particularly striking.
McCormick, a tenor who can sing in the falsetto range with quiet confidence, offers stunning performances, but never so touchingly as when he sings the prayerful "Bring Him Home." On Sunday, the final note floated so masterfully and lovingly that a pause of astonishment preceded the applause.
Mahlum's well-controlled baritone is likewise penetrating, especially in Javert's ode to our celestial judges in "Stars." By the time he performs "Soliloquy" near the end, his rich voice sharpens the nature of his existential dilemma.
Again and again songs drench the theater with emotional intensity: Fantine (Sierra Naomi) singing "I Dreamed a Dream" from her deathbed; poised little Miori Kennedy as young Cosette singing "Castle On a Cloud" with astounding clarity; Enjolras (Scott Sowinski) tearing into the irresistible anthem "The People's Song," setting the already electrifying show ablaze; the poignancy when grown Cosette (Lori Lusted), Marius (Garrett Marshall) and Eponine (Katy Harvey) triangulate "A Heart Full of Love" and later Eponine's heart-tugging "On My Own" that garners resounding applause, and finally Marius, lone survivor of the student army, lamenting his comrades absence in "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables."
Comic relief from the sorrow and misery comes through the conniving innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, played by Chris Vettel and Kathy Schenkelberg. Their cleverly staged antics garner belly laughs at the center of each act with "Master of the House" and "Beggars at the Feast." They even manipulate the young Eponine (Courtney Moreno) into their circus. These hilarious interludes are also heartrending reminders of the degradation seething in the bigger picture.
Smart staging involves the entire cast, moving and even building props for the myriad of scenes. The female ensemble builds the factory scene from which Cosette is wrongly fired, and moments later the entire ensemble appear as the sleazy inhabitants of a derelict neighborhood in Montreuil-sur-mer.
Later, the male ensemble delivers a rousing patriotic song in a Paris tavern and the whole ensemble appear on the imposing street barricade where the battle will ensue. This is also where the youthful Gavroche, played by Aiden Mitchell, makes his courageous stand.
The depths of the sewer are a brilliantly achieved by a combination of projected light and fog machine. Throughout the production, lighting highlights the interplay between dark and shadow. At times, like in a fevered dream, shadows appear against a gauzy white backdrop, a reminder that the journey toward the future is filled with ghosts of the past.
Costume design by Ryan J. Moller is exquisite from Cosette's fabulous gowns to the middle-class students' tailored pants and short jackets to the risque apparel of the streetwalkers. The Thénardiers' outfits are outrageously flamboyant befitting their comedic shenanigans. White crocheted shawls covering the heads of the women's ensemble during "Turning" are particularly touching.
Sound amplification was a bit of an issue - inconsistent volume and orchestration sometimes overpowering the vocalists. Otherwise, the production crew has attended carefully to every element from wigs to make-up, to aging Valjean, to the appearance of the stolen candle sticks in the closing scene when Cosette drapes the same brown shawl around Valjean that he wrapped around her during her rescue.
Grand musical theater has hit small town Sonora: a spectacular cast performing soaring vocals in our little theater. After the first matinee, the audience departed grinning with tear-streaked faces, their anticipation rewarded.
"Les Misérables" plays through May 4. For reservations, call 532-3120 or visit www.sierrarep.org.