A few weeks ago, Les Miserables came to town. I bought my ticket six months ago, because I was definitely not going to risk missing it! The production was wonderful, and I’ve been meaning ever since to write up some thoughts. Who knows–it might be coming to your town next!
Come to think of it, maybe this is an appropriate week for this review. Wrong revolution, but… 🙂
I’ve previously reviewed the book by Victor Hugo (Parts One, Two and Three), the recent movie, and the London stage production. I’m not actually obsessed with this story, just…fond of it.
In case you don’t know the plot at all, here’s the brief description I wrote for the London review: The plot is complex, but basically we’re following Jean Valjean, a former convict (for stealing a loaf of bread) who broke parole to try to remake his life, but is still being sought by Inspector Javert. Valjean’s path intersects with Fantine, a woman who’s driven to prostitution in order to provide for her daughter. Valjean ends up raising Fantine’s daughter, Cosette–whose path in turn intersects with Marius, a student who is in with a group of young revolutionaries, determined to rise up on behalf of the poor and downtrodden of France.
It was fascinating to see the stage production again, after seeing the movie and reading the book. I felt like I was much more informed about some of the choices that were being made, or the extensive backstory addressed in just a few lines in the play. It was also funny how vividly the London production came back to me while I was watching. I was much farther back from the stage this time, so I found my mental pictures filling in the actors’ faces from London.
I was impressed by the staging and the set design, which in some ways felt like the biggest differences from London. In London, it was largely minimalist and sometimes (as in the beginning with the convicts) settings were suggested more by pantomime than anything else. It’s the exact opposite of what I’d expect–you’d think a play that’s permanently in one theater could have far more elaborate sets than a touring company! Instead, this production had more present scenery, including buildings and backdrops and a dramatic landscape for the convicts to be working in. There was just one staging decision I did not agree with at all…but I’ll get to that later on in the story.
Peter Lockyer as Valjean was…fine. Which makes me feel like I’m damning with faint praise, but really he was…perfectly good in the role, he just oddly didn’t resonate with me. He was quite good in “Who Am I?” which is one of my favorites, and otherwise, I find myself without any comments.
Andrew Varela as Javert, on the other hand, was excellent. I especially loved “Stars.” They staged it on the bridge over the Seine (from which he eventually jumps…), so I spent the whole time loving the layers of symbolism. And he just delivered the emotion of the song so beautifully.
Fantine (Genevieve Leclerc) was absolutely wrenching in a completely different way than Anne Hathaway. In fact, I noticed she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” very loud and dramatic, which I almost suspect was in deliberate contrast. Very different–equally effective. Her descent seemed particularly painful, somehow, maybe because it was so rapid–the space of one song, basically. Something about having it on stage, no scene cuts, as she keeps stumbling on and off and comes back more disheveled and desperate each time…wow. Heart-breaking. And her first “customer” was the factory foreman, which was so subtle and so hideous and SO brilliant (and not done in London–I watched for it). I feel like Fantine’s journey was possibly the most powerfully presented one, in this production (and I wouldn’t say that’s universally true).
Moving on ahead to second-half characters…Marius (Devin Ilaw) and Cosette (Julie Benko) got an interesting portrayal, as I felt like they were played to some extent for comedy. Cosette had a kind of puppy-like eagerness in spots, and when Marius sang “I’m doing everything all wrong”–he meant it. Since the Marius/Cosette romance is usually kind of a non-thing for me (in the play; the book is better), I’m all for getting some comedy in with them.
Eponine (Briana Carlson-Goodman) was another who just didn’t resonate. No idea why–she’s one of my favorite characters, absolutely loved her in London and the movie, but have no real comments this time around.
On the plus side, little Gavroche (Gaten Matarazzo) was absolutely splendid. Cheeky, adorable, and present so often…it really conveyed the idea that he has his eyes on everything that’s going on, and he’s the one who really knows what’s what. Enjolras (Jason Forbach) was excellent leading the revolutionaries. Dramatic, impassioned, always ready with the fist-pump or raised rifle when the song needs that final dramatic push. And I swear, I predicted the actor when I was looking at the program. I was 0n the page with all the actors’ pictures (see photo) but no roles identified, and Forbach just looked like Enjolras to me. I think it was the sweep of curly hair. He’s in the middle, third row down.
I was also hugely impressed by Grantaire (Joseph Spieldenner). He was only called by name once, so I had to look up character descriptions to make sure I had the right revolutionary! He’s the cynical one, often drunk, ragging on Marius for his puppy-love and pointing out that they’re probably all going to die. In a way he’s the sour note in the revolutionary fervor, but I find I have to love him for it. He’s the voice of practicality–and he still stands with them when it counts. And, he’s the one who’s close with Gavroche, and there was some really nice pairing of the two of them during crowd scenes.
This, I find, brings me to my one objection to the staging. The barricade didn’t turn. Those unfamiliar with the play will have no idea why this is important; those familiar with it, I hope you understand the problem! (Spoilers here on…) Incredibly important things happen on both sides of the barricade. We have to see the revolutionaries behind it (which we did). But in London, we also got to see Gavroche clamber over it, stealing ammunition from fallen soldiers–and falling himself. Hearing it is just not the same.
The one redeeming aspect of the non-turning barricade was that, while we’re hearing Gavroche on his mission, we see Grantaire. His reaction, falling to his knees as Gavroche’s song goes silent, almost sold me on the staging. So, huge appreciation for Grantaire at that moment. …but I still think it would have been better to turn the barricade.
No turning means we also lost Enjolras falling across the barricade with his flag. Enjolras draped over the barricade, Gavroche lying below–that moment in London is so vivid in my mind. They tried to compensate a bit here by having a moment of Javert looking at Enjolras and Gavroche as a cart carried their bodies away. It was a moving moment–but just not the same.
All right, so much for that. After the barricade, heading on towards the end, there was beautiful staging for “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables.” All the revolutionaries came back to stand around Marius, each one holding a candle, and I can’t tell you how much I love it that Grantaire and Gavroche were walking together. Love. That.
And I love that theater is never the same twice. This was my second experience with the live musical, and it really was different this time around. Some parts were better in London, other parts I absolutely loved what they did here. But for all the pros and the cons, if Les Mis comes to your town…go see it!