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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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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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So, here I am with the last entry in my London series, and a show that I’ve been a fan of for over 25 years.  It was a fun experience of re-visiting an old favorite while also seeing this version for the first time.  I feel that way about London itself every time I visit there.  Having been there five times in the last six years, it has become a very familiar place to me but I always discover new things about it when I am there.  I hope I will be able to visit again before too long and see more of the city and more great shows in the wonderful West End.  So until then, thanks London–it’s been fun!  Here’s my review:

Les Miserables

Music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg

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

Queen’s Theatre, London

October 25th and 29th, 2012

It seems like Les Miserables has been following me lately.  Not only did I go see this production in London, but at the very same time, the US tour was in St. Louis.  Also, the movie will be released in a few weeks, and the Muny recently announced that the show will be part of their 2013 summer season.  I’m not complaining—I love this show and I have since the 1980’s when Les Mis was brand new and I was in high school, listening to the London and Broadway cast albums on my friend’s Walkman on the school bus and singing along with the Broadway CD at home with my brother. Those days are a distant memory now, but my fondness for the show endures.  I was so glad to be able to see the London production because, as far as the English language production goes, that’s where it all started.  Even though the show is one of my all-time favorites and I’ve heard several cast recordings and seen both televised anniversary concerts as well as numerous YouTube clips, I didn’t get to see it onstage until the Muny’s production in 2007, which I saw twice and loved.   Still, seeing it in London was special for many reasons, not the least of which is the incredibly high caliber of the current cast, including two of my favorite performers and several highly talked-about performances.  It’s also Les Mis in London, with mostly the original staging, but it still seems fresh and vibrant even 27 years into its run.

As much as I’ve loved the musical, I never got around to reading the novel until this year, and I’m glad I did because it enhanced my appreciation of the show.  It was fun to watch the show and think of all the little elements from the novel that show up in the various performances, particularly from this cast.  It was also great to watch the show as originally staged and see how well the atmosphere is set–following Jean Valjean (Geronimo Rauch) on his journey from the chain gang to small town mayor to Paris in the midst of the student rebellions.  I think this show has been popular so long because of its enduring themes of loss and redemption, struggle and hope, faith and love, and this current production communicates those themes extremely well.

The cast is simply amazing.  This is a show that’s had so many people in the various roles over the years but the current casting more than lives up to the show’s illustrious reputation.  It’s a “dream cast” as far as I’m concerned, and I felt honored to be able to see them.  Geronimo Rauch, who had previously played the role in Spain, plays Jean Valjean with strength, energy and real compassion, and his voice is strikingly clear and strong. His moments with Fantine and Cosette are very convincing, and “Bring Him Home” is beautiful.  He is well-matched by Tam Mutu as the rigidly determined Inspector Javert.  I loved their performance of the “Confrontation” with all of the energy and depth.  Mutu brings a real depth and humanity to Javert that is evident in his solo numbers and interactions with his fellow cast members.  Sierra Boggess, who played Christine so remarkably in the 25th Anniversary performance of Phantom of the Opera, appears in this production as Fantine, and she brought out the character’s desperation and fragility in a way that I had never seen before.   Her death scene was hauntingly tragic, and she brought both power and gut-wrenching emotion to “I Dreamed a Dream”.  Boggess is more of a traditional soprano than most actresses who have played Fantine, but her voice worked well, highlighting the emotions of the character. Danielle Hope is an outstanding Eponine, bringing out the full emotional range of the character in a performance that is very true to the novel. Hope has a particular gift for allowing the audience to see the character’s thoughts very clearly, without uttering a word.  Her scenes with Marius and her reactions to his attentions to Cosette (Samantha Dorsey) are especially remarkable. “On My Own” is amazing and “A Little Fall of Rain” is heartbreaking.  Her Eponine is simultaneously tough and vulnerable, single-minded, intense and even a little crazy, which is marvelous.

Craig Mather is also a standout as a particularly compassionate Marius. His “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” is stunning, and he has excellent chemistry with his co-stars, especially Dorsey and Hope.  Adam Linstead is also excellent as the saintly Bishop and the student Grantaire, bringing strength and sympathy to both characters.  I also saw Linstead as Thenardier the second time I saw the show, and he was excellent in that role as well, highlighting the comic aspects of the character in contrast to principal Thenardier Cameron Blakely’s darker (and also excellent) portrayal.  I also got the chance to see two different actresses as Madame Thenardier–Nicky Swift (the understudy) on the first night I saw the show and Linzi Hateley (the principal) the second night.  Both were excellent, with Swift coming across as more earthy and Hateley as more over-the-top villainous.  There was also a top-notch ensemble that was in great voice both nights, doing justice to the wonderful score of this remarkable show.  I especially loved “One Day More”, the barricade sequences and the finale in terms of ensemble singing.

Seeing the original staging of this show was a delightful experience.  I loved the giant barricade set especially, and was tempted to applaud when it came together dramatically at the beginning of the second act.  I also liked the extensive use of the revolve and how everything was in constant motion as the story took us from setting to setting as the story unfolded.  It was also great to hear the spectacular music played so well by the show’s orchestra.  The time, place and mood of the show and its various settings were vividly realized, and even though I knew the show well, I felt transported to 19th Century France.  It’s great to see such a long-running show in such a a vibrant production, still being played as if it is brand new.

I could go on writing every little detail about this production, but I won’t because this entry would be far too long.  I love this show so much that anything I write seems inadequate, and it was a joy to get to see it in London with this wonderful cast.  It more than lives up to 27 years of hype, and it deserves to run for many more years. The tagline for this show is “Dream the Dream”, and after all these years, the dream is still going strong.

 

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When I was a teenager back in the 1980s, my Mom would occasionally take the family to a show at a local dinner theatre. I still remember the one time when our waiter informed us that he would be playing Curly in that evening’s performance of Oklahoma! Actors doubled as waiters at this particular dinner theatre. Our waiter, whose name was Kevin, was not the principal Curly—he was the understudy. Kevin was young, possibly only a year or two out of college.  He was good-looking and very personable, and we hadn’t heard of the actor who was supposed to play Curly anyway, so we had no objections whatsoever. When the show started, my family was cheering for Kevin, and he turned out to be a wonderful Curly. His youth actually added to the characterization, and I was happy to see this young actor get a chance to show what he could do. I wasn’t disappointed in the least that I hadn’t seen the main actor. Now, of course this was a dinner theatre and not Broadway or the West End, but that experience stayed with me over the years to the point where I have come to truly respect and appreciate understudies, and I have seen some great ones since that I have never regretted seeing instead of the billed actors.

I’m writing this post as a direct reaction to a conversation I saw on Twitter yesterday. Tam Mutu (@tammutu), a wonderful actor and singer who is currently playing Javert in Les Miserables in the West End, asked a series of questions about theatregoers’ opinions of understudies and received a variety of responses. I did respond to one of his questions, but because it was Twitter and limited to 140 characters, I think my response was inadequate. I also looked at a lot of the responses and saw the whole dialogue that developed, and I thought this would be a subject worth writing about. I’m not going to go over all the Twitter responses, but I’m going to respond to some of Mr. Mutu’s questions individually and also try to explore the whole idea of understudies and why I think they are so worthy of respect.

Tam Mutu’s first question was (to paraphrase) “would you rather see a show with an ill principal actor or a healthy understudy?” To this question, my answer is easy—a healthy understudy. This is for the sake of both the principal and the understudy, because if a performer is ill, he or she should be resting. Singing through a cold can damage the vocal cords, and it’s much better if a performer sits out a few performances rather than hurting his or her voice in the long run. Also, understudies are trained performers who work hard and are just as dedicated as the principals. Some understudies have even been given their big breaks because they went on for the scheduled star on particular night, and a producer happened to be in the audience to see that understudy give an amazing performance. Shirley MacLaine in The Pajama Game on Broadway is a famous example.

Now, the word “star” brings up another issue for me. I often wonder if the reason a lot of people get disappointed when the understudy is on is that there is a perception that they are somehow getting “second best” because the understudy isn’t as well-known. I don’t think in terms of “stars” when I see shows generally, unless it’s a legend like Bernadette Peters or Michael Crawford, but the fact is that even legendary veterans like these are human beings and they can get ill. It’s much better for them if they take a little bit of time off and get healthy, and in the meantime, the audience potentially gets a real treat, like when I saw Anything Goes on Broadway and both “star” performers—Sutton Foster and Joel Grey—were off. That allowed me to discover two wonderful performers in Tari Kelly and Robert Creighton, and I did not for one minute feel like I was getting “second best”. In fact, when Tari Kelly came to St. Louis to star in the Muny’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, I was excited because I had already seen her on Broadway and knew what a great performer she was.

This also brings me to another question Tam Mutu asked on Twitter, which was about what a person would do if they went to see their favorite performer in a show and they were off. That’s about the only time when I would possibly be tempted to exchange my tickets, especially if I had traveled a very long way to see a particular performer (as I have done a few times). I might postpone a special trip if it involves flying, but if that’s not possible or if I were already there I would most likely see the show. I have never exchanged my tickets because an understudy was on and probably wouldn’t in that case either, because I would want to see the show and the rest of the cast, but I can’t say the thought wouldn’t cross my mind. I do think that after seeing the show with the understudy, if it’s possible I would try to see it again later in the week (depending on how long I was in that city) if the favored performer was back in. I don’t blame other people for exchanging their tickets, though, especially if they can’t afford to see the show twice. It’s not about seeing “the star” in that case. It’s about seeing someone you really admire as a performer (whether they’re famous or not) and made an extra effort to see, and it’s understandably a letdown if you get there and find out the understudy is on, no matter how great the understudy is. Even though I probably would still see the show, my response to Mr. Mutu when he asked if people would change their tickets if they knew in advance that a performer would be off was basically “it depends on who it is”, and that is why. There is no disrespect whatsoever intended toward the very hardworking understudies or the performers who take time off for much-needed recovery from illness.

In addition to favorite performers, sometimes there’s just a performance that is so talked-about that you really want to see it, and so when there’s an understudy on, the disappointment is understandable. I wouldn’t change my tickets in that case either, though, because that has happened to me. When the Next to Normal tour came to St. Louis, starring the Tony-winning Alice Ripley as Diana, I have to admit I was disappointed when I looked at the cast board upon arriving at the theatre and saw that Ripley was off. Once I sat down and watched the show I was very glad I got the chance to see her standby, Pearl Sun, give an outstanding performance. I did get an opportunity for discount tickets to see the show again, so I bought them in hopes of seeing Ripley, and when I did I was glad I had seen both performers because they each brought something different to the role. I also saw Jason Watson, the standby for the role of Dan, the first time I saw the show, and thought he was wonderful as well. It was a great experience to get to see the show twice with different leads each time. I understand that some people won’t be able to do that, but I was happy that I did.

I guess the point of all of this is to say that talented performers are everywhere, and just because someone isn’t a “star” or a household name doesn’t mean they’re not a fantastic performer and possibly (like Shirley MacLaine and others) a future star. Also, when you get to a show and find that the understudy is on, while I do understand being disappointed if the principal was someone you really wanted to see, please try not to think you’re getting “second best”.  The understudy just may surprise you. Also, it helps to remember that actors are not super-human and that they do get ill occasionally.  It’s understandable to be disappointed, but please don’t blame them when they need to take a few days off. Thanks to Tam Mutu for asking such thought-provoking questions and I really look forward to seeing him as Javert when I see the show in October. If unfortunately he is off, though, I’m sure his understudy will be great as well. Thanks also to all the wonderful understudies I have seen over the years, starting with Kevin at that dinner theatre years ago. Great talent is great talent, whether the performer is a “star” or not, and these unsung heroes have proven that year after year.

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