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 Les Miserables

Music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg

Lyrics by Alain Boublil (French) and Herbert Kretzmer (English)

Based on the Novel by Victor Hugo

Directed by Richard Jay-Alexander

The Muny

July 15, 2013

lesmismuny

It’s no secret that I love Les Miserables. It’s been one of my favorite musicals since I was in high school in the 1980s, but for various reasons I had never seen the show live until the Muny produced it for the first time in 2007. That production was excellent, and it was great to finally see this all-time classic live onstage (I have since seen it twice in London as well).  Now, six years later, the Muny is producing this wonderful show again, in a production that emphasizes the youth, energy and revolutionary spirit of the piece.  The outdoor setting is ideal and adds to the overall ambience of this remarkable production.

I know the story by heart by now, of paroled convict Jean Valjean, who served 19 years hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread and then trying to escape, who is shown kindness by a bishop and turns his life around, breaks his parole and is pursued by the determined Inspector Javert.  Valjean takes in Cosette, the daughter of the ill-fated factory worker-turned prostitute Fantine, and flees to Paris, where years later they find themselves in the middle of a student rebellion. It’s a story that explores themes, among others, of perseverence, loyalty, legalism vs. mercy, idealism vs. injustice, and fatalism vs. optimism and hope in the midst of tragic circumstances. It’s a timeless tale that has been adapted many times, but the musical has become the most recognizable for it’s compelling portrayal of these themes and characters, and its truly spectacular score, played here with verve and fervor by the wonderful Muny orchestra.

Hugh Panaro is an excellent Valjean, emphasizing the character’s great strength, displaying an excellent voice especially in his upper range,  delivering a beautiful rendition of the prayerful “Bring Him Home”.  He plays the transition from convict to respected citizen to secretive fugitive well, and his scenes with Norm Lewis as Javert are particularly strong.  Lewis, who has previously played the role on Broadway and in the televised 25th Anniversary Concert, makes an ideal Javert—rigid, unyielding and yet displaying a passion for his ideals. “Stars” is a highlight in an evening of many strong moments for him, and he was one of the three real stars of this production for me.

The other two star performances, as far as I’m concerned, come from Michael McCormick and Tiffany Green as the villainous innkeeper-turned-thief Thenardier and his wife.  I loved the physical contrast between them—the smaller, oily, sneaky McCormick and the statuesque Green, who towers over him and displays a strong, booming voice and lots of attitude. Every moment they are onstage  is a highlight, from the show-stopping  “Master of the House” to their swansong “Beggars at the Feast” and everything in between.

For the younger roles, director Richard Jay-Alexander has cast a collection of promising young performers–many of whom are college and university students–including Charlotte Maltby as the tragic Fantine, Alex Prakken and Katie Travis as the young lovers Marius and Cosette, Lindsey Mader as the the Thenardiers’ daughter Eponine, and Bobby Conte Thornton as the charismatic revolutionary leader Enjolras. Maltby in particular is a standout–with a gut-wrenching interpretation of “I Dreamed a Dream” and a poignant death scene.  Her visceral anger at Valjean when he first tries to help her is strikingly powerful.  Prakken and Travis are wonderful as well, displaying excellent chemistry in all their scenes together. They were particularly strong in their first song together, “A Heart Full of Love”, portraying all the excitement and awkwardness of that first real meeting and making this love story more compelling than in some previous interpretations. Thornton as Enjolras shows off a strong voice and a whole lot of charisma, leading stirring renditions of “Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and igniting an infectious fervor for the students’ cause.  Rounding out the younger adult principals is Mader in a fine performance as Eponine, portraying the character as gutsy, melancholy and waifish and with a strong voice. Young Jimmy Coogan as the urchin Gavroche also gives an extremely strong, scene-stealing performance, and his last scene is heartbreakingly compelling.

This is a very large show with a large cast, but the production values made the proceedings seem more immediate and intimate than in the previous Muny production.   The ensemble, portaying factory workers, urchins, students, city dwellers and more, is top-notch and in excellent voice, and the production is impeccably staged.  The set, by Rob Mark Morgan, is simply magnificent—minimal but perfectly suited, with towering shutter-like setpieces that are moved into position to set the various scenes, and a few other simple pieces like the gates for Valjean’s house in Paris as well as the towering, stage-filling barricade that is the center of much of the action in the second act. The electronic scenery wall is also put to good use, providing backdrops of city streets that are sometimes reminiscent of the Les Mis film.  The lighting, emphasizing shadows and contrasts, set the mood and added depth and interest to the already compelling story. The production also made excellent use of the Muny’s large  turntable for very smooth, fluid scene changes and keeping up the pace of the epic plot.

This was, overall, an even better production of the show than last time at the Muny.  Rather than emphasizing the sheer size of the show, this production seemed more intimate, and that made for a powerful presentation of this timeless tale.  For all the tragedy of this show, the final message (in the magnificent finale) is one of hope for the future.  With this production, the Muny has taken its audience on a memorable journey, and I’m glad I went along.  This self-confessed “Les Mis geek” is thoroughly impressed!

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