LES MISERABLES - 25TH ANNIVERSARY PRODUCTION
Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Original Orchestrations by John Cameron
New Orchestrations by Chris Jahnke
Original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel
A musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Bass Hall, Fort Worth
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
Musical Staging by Michael Ashcroft
Set Design by Matt Kinley, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo
Projections realized by Fifty-Nine Productions
Lighting by Paule Constable
Costume Design by Andreane Neofitou
Sound by Mick Potter
Reviewed Performance 9/26/2012
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
It is hard for me to believe that I first saw the musical, Les Miserables, twenty five years ago on Broadway. Up until that evening, my musical theatre experience had come mainly from the tried and true "singing and dancing" shows in their umpteenth revival. Even the newest of musicals then were formatted from the same musical template, with only a thread of a story and different songs to delineate them.
Then came Les Miserables and the theatre world and my world would never be the same. This musical, for me, became the definition of the kind of extraordinary story-telling and emotion theatre could evolve to and possess. The spectacle of the production, the overwhelming storyline and the music enveloped me, and the rest of my time walking around and seeing the sights in NYC was completely altered by what I had seen on the stage that night.
Most know that Les Miz's synopsis was taken from the story by Victor Hugo, a massive five-volume novel set in 19th-century France. The story follows ex-convict Jean Valjean and his struggle for justice and redemption in a time of rebellion and revolution by the poor, the downtrodden, and the young students who are caught up in the romanticism of war. The story is historical fiction, containing facts about the two day student uprising in 1832 called the June Rebellion, and that writers Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel were able to make a cohesive and gripping text from Hugo's literary tome is commendable. History and art are forever intertwined and this tale today sadly mirrors the current events happening in several Middle East countries.
It is actually twenty seven years since Les Miserables first opened in London and I have seen the original production, with all its operatic pomp and splendor, two more times since that first encounter. I have heard the songs innumerous times, know the story forwards and back, and thought there really was no need to see the musical again anytime soon - the concert productions occasionally telecast on PBS would be enough to remind me.
Then I decided to treat myself and go see Les Miserables 25th Anniversary production on New Year's Eve last year.
I'd heard it was a fresh interpretation with additional material and new orchestrations from the originals by John Cameron. How they could possibly improve on this theatre giant was my biggest reason to once again journey to France, 1815. And, though I have but mere words to describe what I saw and the emotions I felt that chilly evening, I'll never be able to fully explain the difference between the greatness of the original production and the sheer brilliance of this "new musical". With the U.S. tour's return to our area, I had the immense honor of being able to relish in this production all over again at Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall.
For those who have seen Les Miserables in the past, the first thing that strikes you is the tightening up of the score. The original songs are all there, but now beautifully updated and freshened by Christopher Jahnke. Rather than the sometimes overly operatic arias sung by the leads, their songs are now clean, crisp and so much more understandable, allowing the actors to better use the words as a part of their characterizations rather than as a separate entity, as is so often done in musicals where the character stops everything to sing a song. And, that the musical is entirely sung, the simplicity of score heightens the story and more easily compels the audience to enter the world of The Wretched, or Les Miserables.
The next thing that makes this anniversary production so special is the entire design element of the staging. This U.S. tour plays in some large theatres and opera houses with even larger stages. The proscenium openings are immense to showcase extravagant operatic productions and concerts. But Les Miserables, in actuality, is a small story about one man, set inside a massively important time in Paris and France, mid-1800. Set Designer Matt Kinley subtly but effectively reduced the proscenium to a more intimate portal with the use of a smaller, secondary proscenium just inside the first. This lets the story become more personal and quieter when necessary, allowing the actors to simply tell the story. The arias now are clearer, richer and more vibrant, and the more subtle, quiet solos or duets are pinpoint accurate as though they were singing only to themselves or each other.
The set pieces, while three-dimensionally complex, are also simpler, easier to maneuver and place, making the scenes transition swiftly and subtly, keeping the pace flowing. Background scrims and walls fly in and out, panels rotate 180 degrees, and more rigid pieces, holding balconies, upper windows, and staircases, glide effortlessly from the downstage wings. Les Miserables' story covers many locations over seventeen years, and Kinley masterfully incorporates pieces into double duty by overlaying them with projections or the subtle use of lighting. For me, however, the crowning visual glory of the production is the background projections of paintings by Victor Hugo, as realized by Fifty-Nine Productions. Slightly abstract, they are darkly drawn, with a sooty or inky quality perfectly suited to his words.
Each one eloquently defines and sets the tone of the scene - narrow city street, belching factory chimneys, foreboding woods. The most effective paintings are those of the Paris sewers where Valjean carries wounded student, Marius.
With the use of computer digitalization, the sewer walls "travel" along with the actor's movement, twisting and turning from one tunnel section to another, as Valjean works his way to safety deep within their recesses. It is a stunning and highly stirring visual. Another powerful use of projection comes near the end during inspector Javert's agonizing realizations. I cannot give this one away but can assure you it is a small moment in theatre that will stay with you.
Between Kinley and Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, they also simplified the scenes themselves. No more going back to the same full sets to revisit a location when a projection hints at the setting and simple props bring back the feeling. This is done most eloquently with the transition between the women at the cemetery in "Turning" and Marius back at the cafe in "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables", where lit-candles in colored votives are set at the graves and then picked up by the students who died at the rebellion - visually understandable, simple and so much more effective and sorrowful.
In harmony with the simpler set is the subtle use of lighting for most of the production. Dimly lit scenes in workhouses, cafes and streets are pierced with shafts of light from upper grated windows or high above, as if from the heavens. Practical lighting is used for most every scene, from lamplights to candles, torches to back-lit curtained windows. Rather than the more typical spotlighting from behind the audience, designer Paule Constable placed several small spots directly on the proscenium line, pinpointing a character from out of a crowd or emblazoning them in brightness during a dramatic moment. Several of the characters who die in the musical rise into or leave their bodies in pure white light. And the lighting does so much more than merely illuminate the set and actors. Rather, it becomes almost a character, the stark white lines cutting diagonally across the stage is every bit as dramatic and important as the action being played.
For the most part, the colors Costumer Andreane Neofitou chose are in muted, colorless tones. Black, grays, dull reds, oranges, blues and greens are interspersed throughout. Even Valjean's daughter, Cosette, who is impeccably gowned, wears subtle shades of blue. Any hint of bright hues is left for the occasional blue and red officer jackets worn by one of the students or by Valjean. Neofitou also plays with color when a distinct visual is needed, such as the swapping of a customer's vibrant red shoes by innkeeper Thenardier. To reflect the moral and ethical ugliness of the guests at Marius and Cosette's wedding, the costumes are gaudy, neon shades of magenta, blue, yellow, green and pink.
Bass Performance Hall is a strikingly beautiful building and always a pleasure to go to. But what sets Bass Hall apart from so many of our other large venue theatres and arenas is its glorious sound quality. From any seat in the house you can easily hear the smallest of whispers, understand the loudest of arias, and the sound does not bombard you only from the front stage speakers, it surrounds you so that the effects of explosions, the orchestra's battle trumpets and the rallying cry from "One Day More" come from everywhere, and yet the plaintive plea of "Bring Him Home" or sorrowful "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" envelopes you softly.
I was most curious to see how the spectacular performance I saw last December was holding up almost a year later. Comparing playbills, I noticed that more than half of the original touring actors are still in the cast, much to my delight. This wonderful group of actors and singers are as unified and engaged as any musical performance I have ever seen. Their love of this work, their complete understanding of their character, lead or featured, and their desire to do nothing but their best radiates off the stage.
Amongst the forty named characters, only around eleven actors play one character. The ensemble does double and triple duty, and together, their voices ring true and clear for the big numbers such as "At the End of the Day", "The People's Song" and One Day More". Standouts in smaller roles include Joshua Colley, who at this review's performance played Gavroche, tiny in stature but huge in heart, courage and voice. Also for this performance, Erin Cearlock played Little Cosette and sings "Castle on a Cloud" with the simplicity and beauty of the child she is.
I hate to call Betsy Morgan's Fantine a minor role, though she has only a few scenes in Act I and then during the Finale. Morgan has a clear connection to her character and her mezzo-soprano voice elegantly defines all Fantine's fears, heartbreak, worry and sorrow for her and her daughter, Cosette's life. Her interpretation of "I Dreamed a Dream" stabbed at my heart and gave me goose bumps as I sat crying in the darkened audience. Another character, not seen many times onstage but one that you cannot help watching and listening to is the drunken, anti-war student,
Grantaire, played from the start of the tour by Joseph Spieldenner. His voice rings out above the other students who are gathering themselves through revolution while Grantaire gathers himself through drink. Spieldenner's booming voice echoes his love of his friends and his disillusionment at the cause they are so eager to die for. Spieldenner also has a tiny but fun role as Major Domo during the wedding scene, and hilariously poses at the downstage side in tilting white wig and breeches, thumping his staff for the orchestra to play when things get a little awkward at the reception.
Student Marius, Max Quinlan, who has also remained in his role throughout, and Lauren Wiley, newer to the role of Cosette, have a sweet and naive chemistry to them as the young lovers. Both their voices work well with their characters but Wiley's soprano is gentler and does not have the power behind it that someone with as much upheaval in her life as Cosette's might have. Quinlan, on the other hand, maintains a clear tenor voice that is both solid and reassuring as in the "A Heart Full of Love" or "A Little Fall of Rain" duets, but is also quietly anguished in "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables", another goose bump moment for me.
Eponine is a young girl who grew up with Cosette, but while Cosette now has a pampered life with Valjean as her father, Eponine lives mostly on the streets, has always loved Marius, and finds her only worth by joining the students in their revolt. Briana Carlson-Goodman has an earthy quality to her mezzo-soprano voice, perfect for such a character. Her solo number, "On My Own", is scored more like a rock or blues song and Carlson-Goodman's voice works well with that. Her duet with Quinlan in "A Little Fall of Rain" is a tad corny but still a lovely piece, the pure white light shining brighter and brighter from above as Eponine dies.
Two of my all-time favorite characters, no matter which production, are thief and innkeeper Thenardier and his unscrupulous wife Madame Thenardier. The two of them swindle and steal from their customers, all the while joking and laughing and taking everyone for everything they have. They also take money from Fantine to care for Cosette and then use her as their servant. These two juicy musical theatre roles are flamboyantly played by Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic, who I saw marvelously play the Madame last year, and she is just as marvelous this time around. Her rich, powerful contralto vocal cords and her most womanly stature make her the perfect choice to play Madame to the hilt. Her half of "Master of the House" is bawdy, raucous and a bit scary, cleaver in hand ! When she and Gulan come back as new, out of place members of the upper class, both their outrageous costumes and their "Beggars at the Feast" duet is the comedy relief of the musical.
The role of Thenardier is multi-faceted. At first look, you think he is merely a bumbling innkeeper who knows how to deceive, cheat and rook his customers. But then you get to see his true nature as an evil thief who has no morals when it comes to taking what's needed to get by. I have liked all the actors I've seen play this role but, for the first time, Gulan portrays all Thenardier's traits distinctly and the character becomes more well-rounded. The evilness, anger and vengeance of Thenardier become blatantly clear in his vocal inflections. He also has slight changes in character, subtle facial expressions and more visual "stuff" going on that some might call "taking focus", but I call creative. Gulan takes Thenardier to a higher level and is one of the highlights of the evening.
The two lead men's roles that drive the story along are Jean Valjean and the inspector hunting for him for all those years, Javert. In a different version of good over evil, Valjean represents the good in man throughout the story and spends his life trying to find his redemption by helping people, while Javert, in his twisted righteousness and belief in the law above all else, pursues Valjean in the name of justice. I had not seen Peter Lockyer play Valjean before and his interpretation is gentler and somewhat less assured than other portrayals. His tenor voice is clear and has the dramatic quality necessary for Valjean's changes in age and demeanor. There is some weakness, though, in the high notes of his solos, "Who Am I?" and "Bring Him Home". The power of those songs does not come through in his voice, as skilled and as lovely as it is. Still, his characterization, especially as Valjean ages, is appropriate and believable and his performance is solid.
Saddled with probably two of the most difficult songs, scored in the deepest register for a baritone or bass-baritone, are the ones for Javert. He is a hated character throughout the musical, and the songs are so deeply rich in venom, want and desperation that he really needs say no more for us to fully realize the man he is. One of my other favorite characters in Les Miserables, I saw Andrew Varela play Javert last New Year's Eve and he remained in my mind. So, I was thrilled when I first saw him step onstage as I knew I was again in for a treat - an actor who looks the role, knows the heart of his character and sings the role with that same steadfast clarity. Varela is a rare beast - a musical theatre singer who can truly act.
Both of his solos are full of quick tempo changes, difficult wording and notes that run the full register of his voice. "Stars" is Javert's anthem, telling the audience what he stands for and how deep is his conviction and his beliefs. Testing those convictions and upending everything Javert thought he believed, the finality of his "Soliloquy" is unnerving and heartbreaking. Varela does not portray Javert as a villain who relishes in his evilness, but instead shows Javert as one whose unyielding path leads to his own bewildered demise. That interpretation is much more entertaining and compelling and Varela's is the standout performance of this production.
Les Miserables' new, updated version is one I doubt I will ever forget. I was giddy beyond words when I left the theatre that cold night last year and I was equally as moved and giddy as I left the Bass Performance Hall this time around. If you've never seen this musical, see it at all costs because it is one of the all-time classics of musical theatre. If you've seen the original version and think you need not see it again, like I did, I ask you to reconsider and see this production, here for only a few days more. Any seat in the house will find you sitting on the edge of it, loving the spectacle, loving the music all over again, and grateful to be in the audience to watch and hear this cast and a production that is truly one for the ages.
LES MISERABLES 25th Anniversary Production
Bass Performance Hall, 4th and Calhoun, Fort Worth, TX 76102
VERY LIMITED run through September 30th
Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm, Sunday at 6:30 pm. Saturday matinee at 2:00 pm and Sunday matinee at 1:00 pm.
Tickets range from $55.00 to $126.50, depending on the performance and seating level.
For infor and to purchase tickets, go to www.basshall.com or call 1-817-212-4280 or 877-212-4280 toll-free.