The Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts (PPTOPA) is a community theater that has never shied away from challenging material, evident in their impressive production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” some years ago. But with their current show, they’ve reached beyond the complex rhythms of Sondheim to tread new ground with the operatic spectacle of “Les Miserables,” a production that is a glorious triumph.
Just in case you haven’t encountered one of its many incarnations, “Les Miserables” is the epic tale of Jean Valjean (James Cichewicz) a man condemned to hard labor for stealing bread. As the story begins in 19th century France, Valjean is paroled by strict, by-the-book law enforcer Javert (Michael Santanelli) and finds it difficult to make a life for himself until kindness prompts a spiritual epiphany. Eight years later, after breaking parole and changing his name, he’s a prosperous mayor and factory owner, and later adoptive father to an orphan. Valjean’s honorable new life makes no difference to Javert, who doggedly pursues Valjean for his crime.
Director Keith Kramer keeps the action moving briskly, maintaining a sense of urgency throughout the sweeping story. PPTOPA does a fine job at presenting the spectacle of “Les Miserables,” through Joe Ferrel’s expansive scenic design, an 11-piece orchestra, and a cast of more than 40 performers.
Standouts include Zack Michael as the street-smart Gavroche (somebody cast this kid in a production of “Oliver!”) Chris D’Angelo as idealistic Marius; Stacey Marino as doomed Fantine; and Ben Sandomir (who portrays Jean Valjean in some performances) as insurrection leader Enjolras.
Special applause for the on-stage scheming Thenardier family — Troy Stanley is hilarious as the ribaldly immoral innkeeper and thief; Jordana Forrest is his garish partner in crime; while Cassandra Zapeda shows extraordinary warmth and poignancy as the teenaged Eponine. Zapeda’s sweet yet gutsy performance of “On My Own” will make you feel the pain of her unrequited love.
The centerpiece of “Les Miserables” is Cichewicz as Valjean, who makes the role his own. Cichewicz brings the perfect balance of intensity, charisma and vulnerability to Valjean. And can he ever hold a note — barely 15 minutes in Act One, he was already receiving showstopping applause for his rich vocal prowess during Valjean’s transformation from hardened ex-con to servant of God.
Cichewicz has a worthy on-stage adversary in Santanelli as Javert, the indefatigable policeman faced with his own moral dilemma. Santanelli’s rendition of “Stars” is beautiful, and it’s fascinating to watch Cichewicz and Santanelli vocally spar.
The production is not without glitches, including mics dropping out and a few weak voices in tiny roles — that’s what puts the community in community theater. But those glitches are tiny wrinkles in the rich tapestry of PPTOPA’s “'” . Don’t miss it.
“Les Miserables” runs through August 3 at the Susan B. Katz Theater of the Performing Arts in the River of Grass ArtsPark in Pembroke Pines. For tickets and more information, visit PPTOPA.com