AT&T Performing Arts Center
Reviewed Performance 12/20/2011
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
You are at a cocktail party or social gathering where there is only theater folk, that strange tribe that worships at the altar of theater. You reach for some cheese from a passing tray as you chat about the "biz". As it tends to happen at these parties, someone will always ask, "Oh did you see?" and fill in the blank with a show title.
Now picture the following: Someone asks, "Have you seen Les Miserables" and a person replies back, "No". Horror! "What? You've never seen Les Miz?"
The cheese platter falls to the floor, people gasp, and you choke on the cheese cube that has gotten stuck in your windpipe. Women faint, cocktail glasses shatter to the floor. The party falls to a deafening silence as the poor guest who made this sacrilegious admission is whisked away by security.
Guests turn their backs as the poor misguided mortal who has sinned against the musical theater gods is led away in chains. A week later we see a picture of this person on the back of milk carton, declaring he or she is missing. But hey, at least they used their headshot on the carton!
Okay, that's a bit melodramatic. But there are some titles in the musical theater canon that an aficionado assumes everyone has seen at least once in their life such as Cats, Phantom of The Opera, and of course, Les Miserables.
I first saw this Cameron Mackintosh mega hit on Broadway in 1988. Since then I have seen it over 20 times thanks to the many national tours that came through the city I was living in during that time. Such as Florida, Oklahoma, Pittsburg, Boston, and Dallas.
The original Broadway production ran for a staggering 6680 performances, closing in 2003. It won eight Tony awards including Best Musical. A mere four years later it was given a fresh new coat of paint with a Broadway revival in November 2006. It would go on to run for 463 performances, closing in January 2008.
In 2010 there was a live London concert version of the musical which was recorded both on DVD and CD for prosperity to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Currently there is a film version of the musical being made starring Hugh Jackman as Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, and Anne Hathaway as Fantine. As for the role of Eponine, rumors have been flying all over the internet and gossip columns that everyone from Glee star Lea Michele to Grammy winner Taylor Swift are up for the role. The film is targeted for a December 2012 release.
But for now, the 2006 Broadway revival version has received its own national tour. The barricades have been constructed, and France's flag is flying over the Winspear Opera House where Les Miserables opened Tuesday evening.
So, after seeing the original Broadway production and the countless national tours of Les Miz, how does this new version measure up? Grab a croissant, a glass of wine and read on.
Right off the bat, be prepared to see no turntable, which was truly revolutionary when it was designed for the original. For this new version Scenic Designer Matt Kinley creates a magnificent array of large set pieces to conceive a whole new vision. His inspirations come from the paintings of Victor Hugo whose novel this musical is based on. Enhancing the sets are the eye popping projections designed by Fifty-Nine Productions. These two design elements work to jaw dropping eye candy amazement throughout the evening. The projections move, sway, focus up, down, swirl, zoom in and out, creating moments that bewitch and dazzle the audience. Kinley's creations for the barricades, the inn, Paris, the bridge, and many other locations are grand in scale and design.
As to not spoil the riches for you, I will not reveal the brilliance these two design elements achieve for such scenes as the barricade battles, Javert's death, the sewers, the introduction to Paris, and so on. If you saw the original or its tours, what they accomplish here in designing a new "look" will blow you away!
Embellishing the scenery is Paule Constable's top notch lighting design. Constable has completely revamped the original lighting. He creates a much more dramatic tone that gives the emotion of the music, lyrics, and acting a blanket of light, beautifully seeping & bathing the stage throughout the evening. Various scenes achieve a higher level of dramatic intensity due to Constable's splendid design, especially in the second act. What he designs for the barricade battle and several key death scenes will put a lump in your throat.
Remember the turntable mentioned earlier? You know how much that central piece created great visual moments. But in this production you really don't miss it. The only time I thought I might was in the second act during the final barricade battle of the student rebels. In the original version, the set turns to reveal the horrific results of the aftermath. Kinley & Constable's dramatic new vision in design for those key dramatic moments will have you wiping tears off your face in the dark. You could hear quite a lot of sniffles during that scene.
Another major change is the music itself. Chris Jahnke, with Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker, create new orchestrations that revitalize the original score with lush, vibrant, heart pounding beauty. Several songs are tweaked, changed, and re-orchestrated both in music and vocals. It is like hearing a completely new score! The sound that pours from the orchestra pit is powerful and thunderous. Familiar themes (like the beginning) sound much more ominous and foreboding than before. When the reveal of the barricade occurs, the new orchestrations just explode with glorious new music.
There are some minor cuts here and there, and also some new additions in lyrics such as in "Pretty Ladies". The new orchestrations for such numbers as "Bring Him Home", "Stars", "Paris", "One Day More", and "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables" are all musically gorgeous to hear.
Directors Laurence Connor & James Powell have re-examined and overhauled the original to create a phenomenal new version of this well known, beloved musical. Somehow the plots and storyline make more sense. This is, in part, because of the design elements, but these two directors take many of the songs and dissect them verse by verse, giving them a richer, organic, more dramatic tone.
Connor & Powell have metamorphosed many scenes. For example, the opening scene is no longer having the cast singing to the audience on a blank stage. Now we are on a ship where the men are in chains rowing (waves splashing across the scrim for added effect!). That's just a small morsel of what these two terrific directors have invented with their new vision.
The pace also picks up in some of the weaker moments of the original, giving the dramatic elements time to breathe, expand, and provide the perfect dramatic pause where needed. Again, thanks to the new orchestrations, several dramatic moments are given extra measures of silence, or the music simply stops and waits for the actor to give the right amount of intensity, then continues when the actor moves on. The staging is extraordinary throughout this new Les Miz.
A standing ovation is given to Conductor Robert Billing and the superb orchestra. The score comes to illustrious life thanks to these first-rate professional musicians. Plus, to have live strings in the pit is the icing on the cake!
The first thing you notice about this cast is the voices. From the principals to the ensemble, has crystal clear, pristine diction. The very next thing you discover from this cast is their singing. The majority of this cast has the most exquisite, powerful singing that has graced any stage, be it Broadway or regional. There are so many resplendent performances, making it difficult to single each of them out.
Delivering outstanding performances within this large company include James Zannelli as The Bishop of Digne, Anthony Pierini as Gavroche, Eric Van Tielen as Combeferre, and Jason Forbach as Feuilly.
Providing the comic relief are Shawna M. Hamic as Madame Thenardier, and Richard Vida as Thenardier. Usually it's the man in this comedic duo that achieves the biggest laughs but not in this production. Ms. Hamic literally steals their scenes with her fresh, hysterical approach to the character. Her Act II costume for the wedding is a hilarious visual. For a second you think Edna Turnblat space traveled to attend the wedding due to this fabulous costume worn by Hamic.
Vida tries too hard to squeeze the laughs out. He overdoes and goes too hammy for the comedic show-stopping number "Master of the House". Vida needs to reel it in and give his performance a better sense of comedic timing, pace, and delivery. He does however fare better in the second act.
Another problematic performance comes from Betsy Morgan as Fantine. Right from the get go she starts on a high dramatic tone with loud, almost bombastic vocals. It leaves her nowhere to go when it comes to the famous ballad "I Had a Dream". When she comes to the crescendo on the big note, she does not allow her voice to glide up the scale, but instead she pounds out each note. Alas in this performance she did not sustain the final note as she ran out of air, therefore cutting that note in half. That is such a vital musical element in the song. Hearing that soft, ethereal soprano continuing after the orchestra cuts off. You could sense the audience's disappointment by the polite applause she received.
It just seemed like a tough night for the female principals. Jenny Latimer, as the adult Cosette, also struggles with the score. Her soprano voice struggles in her upper range and she does not sustain many of the notes in the love ballads of Act One that she sings. Take "A Heart Full of Love". This song is sung in both acts, but sadly Ms. Latimer does not sustain the high note to the very end; instead she cuts it in half, losing the sweet, tender harmonies that her co-stars are achieving on the same song. She also sounds too breathy as though she ran around the Winspear a few laps, then rushed on stage. Several lyrics and verses come out choppy and uneven.
The lone female principal who did deliver a sublime, magnificent performance was Chasten Harmon as the adult Eponine. She clearly peeled into the subtext of both her characterization and lyrics. She is one of the VERY few actresses who I have seen in this role that had me in constant tears during the second act. Her vocal performance of "On My Own" was the female solo show stopping number of the night. You could tell by the audience's thunderous (and long) applause when Harmon ended her final note. She was the only female from the principals to receive that response from the audience Tuesday evening. When it came to those soaring notes of that well known ballad, Ms. Harmon allowed her beautiful, soprano voice to easily glide up the scale to hit the big note with resounding success.
The majority of the male principals fared much better within this production. Andrew Varela as Javert delivers a commanding, multi-layered, dark performance. His booming, flawless baritone vocals and acting craft combined resulted in a major crowd pleaser of a number with his major solo, "Stars". Past actors playing Javert seemed to stay on the same level of "brooding villain" for this character- but not Varela. His relationship with Valjean in this production is slathered with complex subtext. Especially in the second act he shows Javert's confusion within himself, his god, and his enemy (or is he?) Valjean. Varela is a tall man whose presence fills the entire stage. He is exceptional in this production.
A trio of actors in my book actually deliver the best performances I have ever seen in the following roles, and that includes Broadway! These tour de force actors are Jeremy Hays as Enjolras, Max Quinlan as Marius, and J. Mark McVey as Jean Valjean.
Marius tends to be played as the bland, romantic love interest who sings pretty ballads. Past actors sang it in lovely tenor voices with no variation or substance. Quinlan does a complete U-turn with this role, and instead gives us a boy who becomes a man right before our eyes. Quinlan possesses a sublime tenor voice that brings every one of his solos to extravagant vocal life. I've never heard Marius's solos sung as beautifully as Quinlan does. Some of his vocal stand outs include "In My Life", "A Heart Full of Love", "Empty Chairs", and "A Little Fall of Rain". But it is his acting that also deserves great praise. He doesn't' stick to the cookie cutter cardboard characterization of "romantic lead". He gives the role engrossing, detailed subtext and depth.
One of the most emotional moments of the evening is provided by Max Quinlan and Chasten Harmon with the duet "A Little Fall of Rain". For the first time in any Les Miz I've seen, I finally see the possibility of love that could have happened between these two characters. Quinlan & Harmon's chemistry is electrifying, and this duet is so gut wrenching you will feel the tears sting your eyes by the end.
Normally I've seen the role of Enjolras played by an actor with black hair, but not here. Jeremy Hays has a halo of blonde curly hair. Hays gives J. Mark McVey (Valjean) a run for his money in who has the best male singing voice in the cast. Hays has a phenomenal, belting tenor voice that just blew me away. His vibrato was always in control. When he needed to crescendo, he allowed his golden pipes to rise into his upper range with sheer vocal finesse. Then there is that belt! Hays has several songs that leave you flabbergasted on how powerful his singing sounds. Enjolras is the leader of the student rebels, and Hays has the magnetic stage presence to achieve that title. He commands precedence with his every appearance on stage. His acting tools and choices for this portrayal are excellent throughout. He is by far the best actor I've seen tackle this role.
From his first solo to his final note, J. Mark McVey as Jean Valjean is the star of this Les Miz, and deservedly so. His acting craft here is utterly superior. The transformation from a impoverished, lowly prisoner to a rich, exalted leader and loving father is remarkable to watch unfold due to McVey's acting choices. The subtext is a shimmering second skin to his characterization. I've never seen an actor take this role in such new, dynamic, insightful, and powerful complexity as McVey does. His chemistry and connection with every single principal, especially with Varlea & Quinlan, is fleshed out and finely detailed. He buries himself into the heart and soul of Valjean. McVey's stage presence is splendorous and it never once wanes on stage.
Then he sings. You could literally feel the audience perk up in their seats after his first major solo "Soliloquy". He possesses an unparalleled tenor voice. His is an immaculate singing voice that just leaves you with your bottom jaw hitting the floor in disbelief that a voice like that exists in today`s musical theater world. Without a break or even the hint of a crack, he floats into his falsetto with peerless success. Then when he needs to belt, well let's just say he goes beyond the walls of the Winspear.
Each of his solos was received with loud cheers and applause from the audience. But then came the second act and his solo, "Bring Him Home". You know those rare, unique moments in musical theater when you feel you are in the presence of greatness? That is what occurs when McVey sings this haunting, emotional ballad. The falsetto portions of the song are as soft as the feathers on an angel's wings. The crescendos are robust, powerful, and majestic. His interpretation of the lyrics is so deeply moving, and at the end of the song he holds that impossibly high tenor note in falsetto well beyond the cutoff of the orchestra. McVey seems to have lungs the size of those massive balloons floating in the Macy's Christmas parade! He holds that note in perfect pitch, volume, & vibrato. The Winspear audience rewarded him with an ear deafening and very long round of applause, cheers, and bravos. Even when it started to subside, the audience kept the roaring applause going. McVey stayed in character after his solo as wave after wave of admiration from the audience covered him. His rendition of this song is in fact the BEST version I have ever seen in my life in a production of Les Miz. McVey delivers an awe inspiring, formidable, astonishing performance that you will regret not seeing.
Even if you have seen Les Miserables before, you have never seen it like this! It is such a bold, enthralling, gripping, and a much more emotional production of this mega hit musical that I have seen in the past. From its new transformation within its design elements, to the spellbinding new orchestrations, the exceptional and faultless direction, and an absolutely sensational cast, well what more needs to be said to make you go see it?!
Very few mega hit musicals from the 80s and 90s have been given a major retooling and reconstructing from is original form. Les Miz is one of the first out of the gate to take up the challenge. To take such a well known musical loved by millions, strip and tear it completely apart and start from scratch is a daunting and highly pressured task. Be assured, what this new revolutionary vision of Les Miz has achieved is a rare feat in my opinion-it was much better than the original.
CAMERON MACKINTOSH'S PRODUCTION OF BOUBLIL AND SCHONBERG'S
Plays through January 1, 2012
Performances include Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve
and New Year's Day.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Monday and Tuesday at 8:00 pm
Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday at 2:00 pm.
Sunday, December 25th performance is at 7:30 pm.
Tixs start at $30 & can be purchased online at www.attpac.org/lesmiz by phone at 214.880.0202, in person at the AT&T Per