SHOWING : September 19, 2008 - September 29, 2008
[REVIEW THIS PRODUCTION]
[REVIEW THIS PRODUCTION]
Back to the Barricades|
Monday, September 29, 2008 ||
Sometimes, revisiting old favorites (especially after a long interim) can be dispiriting. The experience may be hollower than expected, more “whatever did I see in that show?” disappointing. At other times, it can be as comfortable as slipping into a well-worn pair of slippers, triggering all the same emotional buttons that made you love it in the first place. The experience can be doubly ambivalent when the new production departs from the original path, trying to find different and fresh roads to get to the expected destination.|
“Les Misérables,” the 1980 Cameron Mackintosh / Boublil & Schönberg musical of the Victor Hugo classic has always been a particular favorite of mine. Although some of Hugo’s plot machinations have been whittled down to the point of clunkiness (the love triangle here appears especially contrived), these shortcomings have always been overwhelmed by the sheer emotional appeal of the music and singers. Throughout the eighties, I saw four productions, all following Mackintosh’s original grandiose staging, all pushing the emotional buttons that still get affected by just listening to the score. I even have three recordings – the Broadway Cast, the Symphonic “Complete Show,” and a hard-to-find tape of the original French production.
Lately, it’s drifted into the memory archives, and it’s been almost twenty years since I’ve seen it. So, this remounting by Theatre of the Stars in preparation for a new tour was highly anticipated. I had read that they were abandoning the original staging, even going so far as to eliminate the turntable from the production (Gasp! Sacrilege!).
Well, I have to say that the changes work, I didn’t miss the turntable, and the new staging pushed all the old buttons as well as a few new ones. I don’t presume to speak for all fans of the show, but this particular fan loved almost every minute of the show and cannot praise the new ideas enough.
Before talking about the staging, let me recap the libretto and music for those whose memory may be as spotty as my own. The plot condenses Victor Hugo’s sprawling epic into a concise 3-hour sung-through entertainment, sacrificing some plot credibility for an emotional through-line that carries us on a life-long journey with its hero, Jean Valjean. As a young man, Valjean stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, and, as a result, spent nineteen years as a slave in the French penal system. Upon parole, a small-town priest “buys his soul” with a few pieces of stolen silver. Valjean creates a new identity and eventually becomes mayor of a small town. Through a series of unfortunate incidents, his identity is revealed to Javert, an officer of the law who has made Valjean his personal obsession. Valjean escapes and raises an orphan girl, Cosette. Eventually, the years lead them to Paris where a sudden student uprising captures them all in a web of love and duty and honor. The epilog takes us through Cosette’s wedding and the peaceful end of Valjean’s long and painful journey.
As an interesting digression, I saw a production in Los Angeles with a friend who was a Production Assistant in Hollywood. She didn’t like the show because it didn’t follow the rigid Hollywood story “arc” where everything must lead to the climax. When I reminded her that 19th-century novels had no such restrictions, that the uprisings of Valjean’s later years hadn’t even occurred when Hugo wrote the first part of the novel, it seemed to make no difference. Apparently, this would make a lousy Hollywood movie (as we found out a few years later with the Liam Neeson/Geoffrey Rush version). However, I have to admit a rabid enthusiasm for a slightly earlier French movie by Claude Lelouch, which moved the story to the 1940’s and made it work. I have no idea what this has to do with anything, but I just wanted to add it to the conversation. Hugo’s book is, after, full of many similar digressions and abandoned plot pathways.
Where was I? Oh, yes, I always thought one thing the musical did right, plotwise, was the elevation of the poor, les misérables if you will, into a recurring character and motif, a through-thread that ties the decades-spanning plot together. They’re the “Greek Chorus” who give the show a unity that transcends the episodic nature of the original source. And, it’s fitting that the show’s epilog shows their passing, the guides-folk into the undiscovered country that lies beyond the story. But, that may be a grandiose reading of what is essentially a tear-jerking chorus number.
So, all of this begs the question, what does this production bring to the story? The turntable, after all, was a symbolic reminder of the passage of years as well as a utilitarian device to quickly move the story from scene to scene. After the barricade falls, it even dazzled with its rotating reminder of the true cost of the uprising, as it shows the dead on both sides. What can possibly replace it?
What we have on this go-round are a series of projections and animated backdrops, most of them more impressionistic than realistic depictions, many of them based on Victor Hugo’s original drawings. And they worked. They were executed with a skill that was amazing, fading from one to the next as scenery drifted into place before them, smoothly segueing from song to song that actually made the total running time shorter than what I remember. And, because they were less-than realistic, they carried an emotional weight that was effective, and in some cases, even profound. The “in-place” march of “One Day More” is backed by a receding streetscape that gives the effect of marching through the streets. The Thenardier’s inn is backed by a shadowy bridge and forest, reminding us how alone young Cosette really is. Valjean’s Paris house is backed by a shady neighborhood, reflecting both his prosperity and his isolation. And Javert’s suicide is backed by an ever-rising Chiaroscuro Abstract that can be read as the waters of the Seine or as the mounting swirls of his lost Black-and-White worldview. These are expertly created, expertly realized designs that give freshness to what is essentially a score we’ve heard too often for any hint of freshness.
True, we lose the symbolic “turning years” motif, but is that really essential? After all, the plot itself takes us through the years easily enough without symbolic support. If the Gavroche before the barricade sequence is a tad awkward, it’s also a clever compromise and is no less effective for that. All-in-all, the projections and backdrops give the piece a 19th-century feel, and go a long way to building the mood necessary for the moments of high emotion to work. It doesn’t hurt that the lighting and sound designs provide excellent support, creating a series of theatrical “pictures,” a sequence of moments that dazzle without upstaging, that support without overwhelming. This is technically one of the best shows I’ve seen at the Fox.
This is not to say that the concept wouldn’t have fallen apart if the cast weren’t up to the task. But they were. Rob Evan’s Valjean was letter perfect in voice and in look. And Rob Hunt’s Javert was his match in every way. When the two are on stage together, it’s the perfect storm of singing, acting, and physical presence. The threat they pose to each other is palpable, and it makes the resolution perfectly reasonable and logical. These two carry the show as no other Valjean/Javert combination I’ve seen since the original (and they are every bit their match). If the casting of Nikki Daniels as Fantine and Carly Sonenclar/Deborah Lew as Cosette raises some racial questions best left unexplored, these considerations are left in the wayside by the sheer emotional weight of their talent and their performances. And the addition of Jenny Fellner and Anderson Davis as Eponine and Marius fully round out the young-love-triangle with finesse and with skill. In fact, there is not a weak spot in this cast, and the large and full chorus and orchestra give the music a depth that fills the Fox to the top balcony.
So, this “Les Misérables” is well worth a visit if you’re an old fan who’s been away too long, if you’re a young musical fan yet to make your first acquaintance, or if you’re interested in a beautifully wrought (albeit long) evening in the Theatre. Victor Hugo fans who have yet to venture forth may be taken aback at some of the plot and character liberties, but, I daresay, even they will be caught up in the sweep of the story, the beauty and theatricality of the presentation, and the raw emotional energy of the performances.
I have heard this music literally hundreds of time. And yet I still found myself tearing up at certain moments, especially, when the ghost of Fantine beckons Valjean, “Come with me, where chains will never bind you.” And, if she is as seductive as Ms. Daniels, as effective as this production, as beautiful as these songs, I would gladly follow. As would you, I’d wager.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
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Les Miserables, Not so miserable|
Sunday, September 28, 2008 ||
Overall I enjoyed the staging of the Theater Of The Stars, Les Miserables. I think vocally, the show was near perfect. The projections worked at times, but many of the projections were to modern compared to others that they chose. Javert did not age one bit from beginning until end. ValJean did, but not Javert. Why? I am actually surprised Deadalus missed that one, or the brand new polyurethane lacquered guitar they played behind the barricade! Marius Voice had huge vibrato control problems. Sometimes the cast would come on to set up a scene, and then get into character instead of coming on in character. The Cosette and Eponine were among the best that I have seen. I loved Laurent Giroux in Annie, but not here. Anyone can get a laugh with the great material, I would have liked to sen more than just that. The Orchestra was spot on, and the shows pacing ws very good. I agree that I did not miss the turntable (I thought I would). I think it takes a director with guts to try anything different with this show, so I applaud his courage. Overall, even with my nit picks, it was a good evening. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW] |
| || Javert's Age by Dedalus|
| You're right, I did let Javert's lack of age pass right over me. Chalk it up to "willing suspension of disbelief" -- I was so into the show by that point ... oh, well, you know the drill.|
As to the guitar, well, I didn't recognize the polyurethane lacquer -- in the original novel, Hugo tells us that on the night before the final battle, they sat around singing love songs, so a guitar would have been there (probably). I don't know guitars well enough to distinguish a modern finish from a period finish, so I concede your point.
Les Miz at a Discount|
Saturday, September 27, 2008 ||
This production of a much-loved show advertises itself as a scaled-down, more intimate (if such a thing is possible with Les Miz) production which focuses on character and music. That approach has worked before with "Chicago" and "Sweeney Todd", but doesn't work as well here--or at least it doesn't in this particular production. And I think the problem is the venue--the huge, cavernous Fox Theatre. It seems that if you want to present such a production--smaller scale, more intimate--it should be presented on a stage which is also smaller scale and more intimate. As presented on the Fox stage, this production just seemed to take place on an empty stage, as though the producers ran out of money before they got around to sets. And, like it or not, theatre is a visual art, and audiences expect to see something on the stage other than actors and an occasional chair or bed--especially if those actors are dwarfed by the size of the stage and your perspective as an audience member sitting in the loge. The set pieces on either side of the stage were well-done, but they were lost in the vast space between them. The rear-stage projections, designed to compensate for missing production values, were about as effective as looking at the back wall of the stage. |
This type of production places a large load on the shoulders (and voices) of the cast--who must take up the slack in grabbing the audience's attention and holding it for almost three hours--and once again difficult to achieve in such a huge place. This cast was adequate, not bad, but not outstanding--though there were flashes of vocal and dramatic intensity...from Eponine ("On My Own") for example. And "One Day More", as always, is a thrilling, chill-inducing number.
But other numbers, such as "Master of the House" and Javert's suicide, were disappointments in both vocal delivery and staging.
Sadly, rather than an innovative, fresh look at "Les Miserables", this production was a discount version and a disapointment. Of course, the only thing NOT discounted was the ticket price and this "Les Miz," all things considered, is no bargain. Let the buyer beware. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
| || I'm new to this, by JTL|
| First of all, I must say that I have not seen the original production so I don’t know what I’m missing. I liked the rear-stage projections, I noticed a time when the lights came on in the projected house on cue. The main thing that got me to respond was Javert's suicide. I loved the way the bridge flew away and the projections pulled you back down. I also liked the sewer scenes. I would love to see these shows in a smaller venue but where? |
| || Everyone has their opinion! by TheaterColin|
| This is THE only negative review I've found of this show. And I've read a ton of reviews. Brady Rudy (dedalus) reviewed the show and gave it an A! AJC gave it a very positive review, and the rest of the reviews from the tour have been positive. I, a cast member of this show, agree that there is some lost space with the little sets, but you have to look at it from a more artistic perspective.|
I COMPLETELY disagree with the fact that Javert's suicide was disappointing in vocal delivery. It gave me absolute chills when I heard it, and in my opinion, he is better than Terrance Mann! For being very young, Rob Hunt does a phenomenal job with delivering that powerful song.
But, everyone has their opinion! You are entitled to your opinion about not liking the show. Everyone I've talked to (which has been a ton of people) has said nothing but positive things about the show.
| || As always... by TheatreJock|
| As always, a review, regardless of who writes it, is just one person's opinion. Having seen several productions of "Les Miz", I watched this one thinking something had been taken away--not that I was seeing a fresh interpretation. Just my opinion. With all due respect, it's not surprising that your perspective as a cast member might be different from one who simply buys a ticket, hoping to see a good show.|
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by David Shire (music), Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics)