From the moment Ivan Rutherford, as convict Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables," began to sing "Soliloquy," the opening song, the audience was won over.
Rutherford’s superb tenor could have carried the musical all by itself — but it didn’t have to. The touring production had enough stirring performances to spare.
With one slight exception. Tonya Dixon, as Fantine, the dying unwed mother who begs Valjean to care for Cosette, her soon-to-be-orphaned child, frequently slipped into inaudibility in her lower register. However, even Dixon redeemed herself with "I Dreamed a Dream," which she belted out as if to make up for her previously swallowed notes.
As the play rolled on (literally, given the slowly spinning turntable it’s performed on), it became clear that the Gammage audience was prepared to forgive any actor’s momentary lapses. "Les Mis" was that good.
Rutherford continued his outstanding performance all the way through, especially with "Who Am I?" and his prayerful "Bring Him Home." He rightfully earned the evening’s loudest cheers. But the cheers were almost matched by those for the extraordinary Jessica Snow-Wilson, as Eponine. In contrast to Rutherford’s operatic voice, Snow-Wilson’s sang like a Top 10 pop diva.
This made her especially well-cast as the lower-class Parisian girl who vies with Cosette (soprano Amanda Huddleston) for the love of Marius (sung nicely by Scott Hunt), a young revolutionary. When Snow-Wilson sang "On My Own " as Eponine lay dying at the barricades, the audience sobbed.
They began to cry all over again when the barricade battle began in earnest and all the young Parisian revolutionaries, except for Marius, was killed. Hunt’s "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" sounded particularly apt, given America’s own recent experience with battlefield deaths.
But you can’t have a good hero without a good villain, and Stephen Tewksbury, as Inspector Javert, who has sworn to bring Valjean to "justice," fulfilled that role with a vengeance. He was terrifying, yet oddly moving. His stirring rendition of "Stars" revealed the heart of an overconfident man who, in the face of much unjust suffering, still believes that law is the highest of all human virtues.
As miserable as almost everyone in "Les Miserables" (a perfect title) is, there are two major exceptions: The delightfully wicked Monsieur and Madame Thenardier (the excellent Michael Hayward-Jones and Jodi Capeless), scrofulous tavern owners who make the young Cosette’s life a living hell before she is rescued by the saintly Valjean. Their riotous "Master of the House," in which they sing about the joys of fleecing their drunken customers, is a hoot.
Not to mention their hilarious return late in the second act as duded-up party-crashers at a wedding. Their "Beggars at the Feast" left people laughing helplessly.
But everyone began crying again when Valjean, his duties on Earth completed, began his final "Soliloquy" — while the ghosts of Fantine and Eponine joined him.
A wonderful (if tearful) finish to a wonderful production.
When: 7:30 p.m. today, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Gammage Auditorium, Mill Avenue and Apache Boulevard, Tempe
Cost: $21.75 to $62
Information: (480) 784-4444