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Archive for January, 2013

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Eleemosynary at Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Well, here it is–the last day of January 2013.  I’ve found myself thinking back at all the great theatre I saw in 2012 (London, Denver, the new-and-improved Muny, etc.), and I’m very grateful for all I got to see and do last year.  My only real regrets are that I didn’t see more shows at the various different theatre companies here in St. Louis, and that I didn’t manage to review every show I saw.  So with that in mind, here are my Theatre Wishes for 2013:

In 2013 I hope to:

1. Review every show I see–That is, regretfully, something I didn’t do in 2012.  Here are some brief thoughts about the three 2012 shows that, for various reasons, I didn’t get around to reviewing last year:

  • Chicago, the Muny (June 25th)—This was a full-scale production of the much-loved Broadway show with a fun set that brought the orchestra onstage and set the action in the atmosphere of a jazzy 1920’s nightclub. It was  a lively, colorful production with great performances by Patti Murin and Natascha Diaz as musical murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, as well as by Justin Guarini as slick lawyer Billy Flynn (with a smooth crooner’s voice and great dance moves) and Jackie Hoffman as tough prison matron Mama Morton.
  • Pirates! Or Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d, The Muny (July 30)—This show was imply a lot of fun! This production, which is basically The Pirates of Penzance with a Pirates of the Caribbean twist, had a lively cast led by Hunter Foster as the Pirate King, Jay Armstrong Johnston and Analisa Leaming as the noble and loopy lovebirds Frederic and Mabel, and probably the best ensemble chemistry I’ve ever seen at the Muny. It was a tale of pirates, curses, True Love, and more, and it was a sheer delight from start to finish.
  • Eleemosynary, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (November 17)—This was a show that I had never heard of prior to my seeing it at SATE.  Great performances and creative staging tells the story of the complicated relationships among an “eccentric by choice” grandmother (Margeau Baue Steinau), her more conventional daughter (Rachel Tibbetts) and her bright and determined spelling-bee champion granddaughter (Madeline Steineau).  It was a truly beautiful production with exquisite performances.  I’ve never seen a bad production at SATE, but this was one of their best.

 2. See more shows in 2013—In addition to the Muny, the Rep, Shakepeare Festival St. Louis and SATE, there are many other great local theatre companies that I haven’t patronized yet.  I hope to see more shows at more venues in the coming year, as well as taking in special events like Shake 38 and St. Lou Fringe, and reporting about all that I see. St. Louis might not have the bustling theatre scene of New York, London, or even Chicago, but it has a lot more to offer than many would imagine, and I hope to explore the St. Louis theatre scene more thoroughly in the next year.

 3. Write more topical entries–Reviews are fun, but I really see myself as a fan more than a critic. I review shows as a celebration of theatre, but I hope to explore more of my thoughts on various topics ranging from favorite composers and playwrights, favorite shows and performers, and issues that particularly interest me concerning theatre.   I also may occasionally write about movies and TV, although theatre will be my main focus because that’s what I’m most interested in.

 4. See and review at least one show in a city other than St. Louis—In the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to see shows in New York, London and Denver.  .  If I could, I would travel to many cities around the world seeing shows and writing about them, but this year my travel plans aren’t as extensive. I do hope, however, to get to a show on my family’s planned trip to our old stomping grounds, Washington, DC, later this year.

 5. Write more consistently—Because I don’t get to see as many shows as I’d like to, I’ve often gone for long periods of time between blog entries, and this year I aim to change that.  My minimum goal is to write at least two blog entries per month, although I hope it will end up being more than that.

So, one month into 2013, I’m approaching the year ahead with high hopes and happy memories.  I hope 2013 will be as eventful theatre-wise as 2012 was, and even more so!

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So here it is–after a wait of over 20 years, the musical Les Miserables has been made into a movie, directed by Tom Hooper. There are so many things I want to say about this film, so at the risk of rivaling Victor Hugo’s novel in length, here are my thoughts, as thoroughly as possible:

First, it’s no secret to anyone who knows me (or has read my last blog entry) that I love Les Mis!  The stage musical has been a favorite of mine since I first heard the Original London Cast album in 1986 when I was in high school, and since then I’ve heard several cast albums, seen the stage show four times and seen many clips of various productions on YouTube.  I also finally read the novel in the past year and loved it as well.  I got very excited when I heard this movie was finally being made.  I followed all the spoilers and production reports I could find online, and I was glad when it finally opened and I was able to see it.

Since I love the stage show so much, I had to remind myself when I saw this film that it wasn’t going to be exactly like the stage musical.  Actually, it’s impossible for them to be too similar since the medium of film is very different and what works on stage might not work on film and vice versa.  I was all right with the changes, for the most part, especially since I knew I could always see or listen to the stage version again, and when the songs played in my head after I saw the film, they have mostly been the stage versions, because the song order and some of the lyrics of some songs have been changed for the film.  Sometimes the lyric changes work, such as when they’ve been adjusted to fit the new situations in the film, such as “today” vs. “tonight” in “Red and Black”, when Marius is describing meeting Cosette).  Other times, however, the changes are less satisfactory, such as in “At the End of the Day” when Valjean sings about being the Mayor of the town and the lines are the same but have been inexplicably reversed to remove the rhyme.  There have also been some sections of recitative added to further clarify events and changes that reflect the way things happened in the original novel (such as some scenes with Javert and with Eponine).

I noticed that there was more of a sense of gritty realism in the movie, and that’s to be expected onscreen, but the tone of the film is also more consistently grim than that of the stage show.  Darkly comic numbers like “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House” have been made even darker on the screen, and some of the placement of other songs such as “I Dreamed a Dream” has been altered to affect the tone of the film and to highlight the misery all the more.  In the film, Fantine (the brilliant Anne Hathaway), sings her signature song after she has sold her hair, her teeth (a feature of the novel that was not in the stage musical), and finally her body as a prostitute, as opposed to onstage when she sings it right after losing her job at the factory.  This lends an extra sense of anger and desperation to Hathaway’s version of the song, and I think this scene is one of the standout scenes in the film, and probably the one scene that is most remembered from this movie in future years.

The performances in this film are, for the most part, excellent. Hugh Jackman gives a solid performance as Jean Valjean, and his voice is strong if not as “pure” as some of the stage Valjeans I have heard. His transformation from convict to mayor to adoptive father is very believable, and his scene with Javert at the barricade is particularly moving, as is the finale. The only moment of his that disappointed me was “Bring Him Home”, which is one of my favorite songs from the show, and Jackman’s version was somewhat jarring and harsh in contrast with the simpler, purer, prayerful tone of previous versions. Otherwise I was impressed by Jackman’s performance. Russell Crowe as Javert is more uneven in his portrayal. I thought he was most effective in his scenes with Valjean, particularly in “The Confontation” and at the barricade, where his more rock-sounding voice didn’t sound as out of place as it does in much of the rest of the film. Acting-wise, I believed his performance but I wish he could have been a little more imposing and authoritative.

The real standouts in this cast for me were Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Aaron Tveit as student revolutionary leader Enjolras. Hathaway brought out all the raw emotional energy of Fantine’s plight, and in addition to “I Dreamed a Dream” I loved the scene where she explains who she is to Valjean, and her death scene is heartwrenching as well.  Redmayne brought out a real charm and sympathy to the student Marius, and his lovesick pronouncements upon meeting Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) were convincing and not overly hokey. His “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ was another dramatic highlight as well. I loved Aaron Tveit as Enjolras—he had just the right air of a charismatic leader and his voice was strong and clear. Samantha Barks (an Andrew Lloyd Webber casting show alum) played Eponine very well and truer to the novel version than she had in the 25th Anniversary concert, but I think the shifting of songs and shortening of her role was a detriment, almost making the character seem irrelevant, though Barks does her best with what she is given. I also thought that Seyfried made a very good Cosette, even if her voice sounded a little thin in places. Her chemistry with Redmayne was excellent and I thought their love story was believable and compelling.Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were both funny and appropriately slimy as the villainous Thenardiers, although sometimes it seemed like they belonged in a different movie than the rest of the cast, and their scenes seemed more over-the-top grotesque than they usually do onstage.  I was also impressed by the great performances of the child actors in this film–Daniel Huttlestone as the gutsy urchin Gavroche and Isabelle Allen as the young Cosette, and I also particularly enjoyed the scenes with the students and the real sense of friendship between them.

In terms of filming, I have heard a lot of complaints about the frequent use of close-ups and tilted camera angles. I wasn’t bothered by any of this, although occasionally in the group numbers I wish there had been more wide shots of all the singers. Still, I thought the angles and close-ups worked to highlight the stark realism of the situations. I also liked that the barricade, which seems impossibly huge onstage, was more claustrophobic and kind of crammed into a small alley like it was described in the novel. The prominently place coffins on the front of the barricade also serve as a striking bit of foreshadowing.

Overall, I think the whole look of the movie was just right. It put me into the time and place and brought little moments from the novel to life that hadn’t been in the stage musical. What didn’t always work, though, was the re-structuring of the song order. Some numbers, like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” benefited from being moved, at least in terms of the film, but other songs like “On My Own” didn’t work as well in their new positions, I thought.  I was also slightly disappointed that several of the songs have been severely shortened for the film, although I understand why they had to do that, for the most part.

I love how the themes of the novel–law vs. grace, redemption and love, as well as the revolutionary spirit and class struggles–are so vividly represented in the film, with the religious imagery and icons like the cross on the mountain as Valjean starts on his journey from the chain gang and is given sanctuary, first in the house of the Bishop (played wonderfully by original stage Valjean Colm Wilkinson) and, later in the story, in a convent, and the revolutionary images of the red flags and red-white-and-blue badges of the students.  It’s a visually striking film, with a vivid representation of 19th Century France and a Paris that looks very different than it does today, with the giant plaster Elephant of the Bastille as the centerpiece in some of the later scenes.

Another thing I loved about this film, as a theatre fan, is that so many of the extras and minor roles are played by West End theatre veterans, including many former Les Mis cast members, such as Wilkinson and original stage Eponine Frances Ruffelle (who plays one of the prostitutes).  It was fun playing “spot the theatre people” and also seeing all their names in the credits at the end of the film.  There are many former Eponines, Cosettes and students in particular, and it’s great that producer Cameron Mackintosh and director Hooper have included them in the film.

In a sense, I think this material will always work best onstage and it did feel a bit odd at times to see what is essentially an opera represented on film, with just a few bits of dialogue thrown in, presumably to make it more accessible to audience members who aren’t as familiar with the form of the stage show, as opposed to old-school Les Mis geeks like me.  For the most part, I think the transition works very well but I personally will always prefer the stage show.  Still, I think this movie will serve as an excellent introduction to the material for people unfamiliar with the stage version, as well as an enjoyable entertainment in and of itself.  I love that the filmmakers did not forget the history of the show or the novel on which it is based, and that they celebrate that history.  For me, the film version of Les Miserables is a worthy adaptation and a more than worthwhile cinematic experience.

Grade: B+

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