🎭 Death on Stage, Done Right | “Les Misérables” @ Pantages

Les Misérables (Pantages)Yesterday, I wrote about Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre, and how the death at the end of that show closed the show on a down note, leaving with the audience impressed with the performances, but an ultimate “eh” for the overall feeling. Contrast that with the death that occurs at the end of Les Misérables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB): almost the entire company on stage, marching and singing and celebrating the life and glory. You walk out humming an uplifting anthem, with a completely different feeling. Now that’s how you do death!

Also as with Falsettos, this is the second time we’ve seen the show. The first was also in 2011 when it was at the Ahmanson. This was also the year we first saw Falsettos. Back then I wrote about the show:

Back in 1985, a musical juggernaut was created: Les Misérables, the musical version of the Victor Hugo novel. It hit Los Angeles in 1988, opening at a rejuivenated Shubert Theatre in Century City, where it ran for fourteen months. It returned to Los Angeles numerous times since then under Broadway/LA’s banner (2004, 2006). However, it wasn’t until the current 25th anniversary production at the Ahmanson Theatre that I finally saw the show. As my wife said as it ended last night, “Wow!”.

Les Misérables” (the musical) tells the story of Jean Valjean, also known as prisoner 24601, and his adopted daughter, Cosette. It is based on the Victor Hugo of the same name, but does cut a few elements of the story. The story, which covers 17 years, is so complicated that a synopsis needed to be published in the program (seemingly, a bad sign). Given that, I’m not going to attempt to repeat it here. You can read it yourself in the Wikipedia Page on the show. Suffice it to say that the show condenses the 1,200 page, five volume novel into two acts of 90 minutes and 65 minutes respectively. The first act covers Jean Valjean’s release from prison and the interaction with the Bishop at Digne, the mayoral years at Montreiil-Sur-Mer where Valjean meets Fantine and takes responsibility for Cosette, the visit to Montfermeil where Valjean obtains Cosette from the Thénardiers, and the years in Paris where the student revolt begins and Marius and Cosette fall in love… all of this while the police officer Javert is chasing Valjean. The second act is solely in Paris and covers the student revolt, its failure, the subsequent growth of the relationship between Marius and Cosette, the final confrontations of Valjean and Javert, and the final redemption of Valjean. That’s a lot of material to cover—trying to cover so much material and so much time is the reason many great novels, such as Gone With The Wind, never make it to the Broadway stage. It is a testament to the original authors Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (a French-language libretto) that they were able to take the beast of a novel and turn it into something understandable (although, arguably, this is really a full opera presented in the guise of a “musical”—at times, the lines between the two blurs). It is also a testament to the English language adapters, Herbert Kretzmer who developed the English language libretto, and Cameron Mackintosh, the original producer, who discovered the French production in 1982 and has sheparded it ever since (I’ll note Mackintosh’s full bio in the program was: “Produces musicals.”). The production was adapted by Sir Trevor Nunn and John Caird.

The translation does have its weak parts, however, primarily in how manipulative it is for the audience. By this, I mean the show in engineered to be a pleaser, with music that builds and leaves the toes tapping; with moments designed to permit the actors to shine; and with act-ending finales designed to stir the soul. In that sense, it is truly operatic as opposed to dramatic. It it also, at times, emotionally overwrought—again, a hallmark of the more operatic side. To some that is a fatal flaw that reduces the worth of the show, but I do enjoy the general effect.

[Some story credits I missed including the first time: Claude-Michel Schönberg Music; Herbert Kretzmer English Lyrics; James Fenton Additional material]

It is now 8 years since I saw that production. What has changed, other than Cameron Mackintosh now having a full bio? Does the new touring production reach the same heights? After all, the story hasn’t changed at all.

Sad to say, the answer is decidedly mixed. The performances are soaring, and the direction and choreography makes the best use of what they have to work with. Voices are remarkable, and the audience is excited. But production decisions make the ultimate effort hard to embrace. At the Ahmanson, the tour was designed to use the entire stage, which is needed for the company to express the broadness and scope of the production. At the Pantages, the set artificially constrained the stage space, cutting the width of the Pantages stage by an estimated one-sixth on each side (that’s a one-third cut overall, for those math challenged). This limited movement, and obscured sight lines from the side. Further, the lighting was dark dark dark, and then smoke and fog effects were added. This made it hard to see. I recall that the Ahmanson staging was better lit and you could see the actors from a distance. The constrained stage and the lighting served to tone down the show. At least the sound was, for the most part, good (which can be a problem in the Pantages).

This is not to say that the production was bad or poorly executed: only that it could have been better. The performances themselves were stunning. The comic bits with the Thénardiers were hilarious (in particular, Mme. Thénardiers reprise to “Master of the House” with the bread), and there were some remarkable sustained high notes. The voices were phenominal, and the music for this show is just a delight. You can just float away on that alone. It just didn’t have the impact of the first time we saw the show.

Some of the problems with this production — at least design wise — may be the results of decisions by the directoral team of Laurence Connor and James Powell. But they did do a great job with their performers about bringing out effective and strong performances that conveyed both the story and the emotions of the characters. They helped their acting team inhabit their characters and tracks, and generally made the performances the strongest part of this show.

In the lead position of this story was Nick Cartell (⭐FB, FB) at Jan Valjean. Cartell had soaring vocals in songs such as “Bring Him Home”, and captured the angst and torment of the character well, Opposing him throughout much of the story was Josh Davis (⭐FB, FB) as Javert. Davis also had soaring vocals in songs like “Stars” and his Soliloquy — a common trait in this cast — and provided solid opposition.

This brings us to the adult women in the cast: Mary Kate Moore (FB) as Fantine; Jillian Butler (FB) as the adult Cosette; and Paige Smallwood (FB) as the adult Éponine. All were beautiful and spectacular and sang like angels — Moore in “I Dreamed a Dream”, Butler in “A Hear Full of Love”, and Smallwood in “On My Own”. They made the same casting decision that was done in the 2011 production that required a bit of suspension of disbelief (little white girl turns into stunning black singer), but this is a stage fantasy, so who really cares.

Then there are the kids: Cate Elefante (FB) as Little Cosette (alternating with Aubin Bradley), Aubin Bradley as Young Éponine (alternating with Cate Elefante (FB)), and Parker Weathersbee as Petit Gervais / Gavroche (alternating with Parker Dzuba, who came in for Jonah Mussolino (⭐FB) in August 2018, when Jonah moved to Falsettos). Elefante was spectacular in her opening scene singing “Castle on a Cloud”, and Weathersbee was strong as Gavroche in the second act in all of his numbers. All were astonishingly cute.

Joshua Grosso (⭐FB) made a strong Marius, whom we see as Cosette’s love interesting and a leader of the students in the second act.  He has a touching rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, and a lovely duet with Éponine in “A Little Fall of Rain”.

Lastly, in terms of the major characters in the story, there is the comic relief duo of J. Anthony Crane (⭐FB, FB) as Thénardier and Allison Guinn (⭐FB, FB) as Mme. Thénadier. We don’t meet the characters until the wonderful “Master of the House”, and then they keep reappearing in funny situations throughout the story. The actors play off each other well and are having fun with their roles, and that comes across to the audience well.

All of the other characters are in smaller roles, often not well named on stage, or in ensemble positions: John Ambrosino (FB) – Bamatabois, Claquesous; Felipe Barbosa Bombonato (FB) – Grantaire (at our performance), Farmer, Babet (normally); Olivia Dei Cicchi (FB) – Innkeeper’s Wife; Kelsey Denae (FB) – Wigmaker; Caitlin Finnie (FB) – Ensemble; Monté J. Howell (FB) – Innkeeper, Combeferre; Stavros Koumbaros (FB) – Joly; Andrew Love (FB) – Champmathieu, Brujon; Andrew Maughan (FB) – Bishop of Digne, Lesgles, Loud Hailer; Maggie Elizabeth May (FB) – Old Woman; Darrell Morris, Jr. (FB) – Constable, Montparnasse; Ashley Dawn Mortensen (FB) – Factory Girl; Bree Murphy (FB) – Ensemble; Domonique Paton (FB) – Ensemble; Talia Simone Robinson (FB) – Ensemble; Patrick Rooney (FB) – Constable, Fauchelevent, Jean Prouvaire; Mike Schwitter (FB) – Laborer, Feuilly; Matt Shingledecker (FB) – Enjolras; Brett Stoelker (FB) – Swinging in to Babet, Major Domo (at our performance); Addison Takefman  – Ensemble; and Christopher Viljoen (FB) – Factory Foreman, Courfeyrac. Matt HillNormally, Grantaire, Major Domo was out at our performance.

Swings were Julia Ellen Carter (FB); Jillian Gray; Tim Quartier (FB); Brett Stoelker (FB); and Kyle Timson (FB).  Understudy allocations are not shown.

This show isn’t a dance show per se, but there is lots of movement. The musical staging was by Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt (FB). Kyle Timson (FB) was both the Dance Captain and the Fight Captain. Given the small stage space, the movement was very effective in utilizing that space and doing its best to create the illusion of a larger space. Still, this resulted in a lot of people going in a lot of circles.

The orchestra (under the Musical Direction of Brian Eads (FB)) was larger than the typical touring orchestra, and had that wonderful large orchestral sound that this show needs. No indication was provided as to who was local and who was not, but I recognize a number of names, so my educated guess as to locals is indicated with 🌴. The orchestra consisted of: Brian Eads (FB) – Conductor; Eric Ebbenga (FB) – Assoc. Conductor, Keyboards; Tim Lenihan (FB) – Asst. Conductor, Keyboards; Danielle Giulini (FB) – Violin, Concertmaster; Karen Elaine (FB) – Viola; 🌴 Ira GlansbeekCello; 🌴 Michael Valerio (FB) – Double Bass; 🌴 Amy Tatum (FB) – Flute, Piccolo, Alto Flute, Recorder; 🌴 Richard MitchellB Flat Clarinet, E Flat Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Tenor Recorder; 🌴 Laura Brenes (FB) – French Horn 1; 🌴 Allen Fogle (FB) – French Horn 2; 🌴 John Fumo (FB) – Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Piccolo Trumpet; Phil Keen (FB) – Bass Trombone, Tuba; Jared Soldivero (FB) – Drums, Percussion, Mallets, Timpani; Mary Ekler (⭐FB) – Keyboard Sub; Stuart AndrewsKeyboard Programming; Jean BellefeuilleAsst. keyboard Programming. Other Orchestral credits: 🌴 Eric Heinly (FB) – Orchestra Contractor; John CameronOriginal Orchestrations; Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe, and Stephen Brooker [UK] – New Orchestrations; Stephen Brooker [UK] and James Moore (FB)  [US] – Musical Supervision; and John MillerMusical Coordinator.

Lastly, turning to the production and creative aspects: I’ve already mentioned the constrained stage space and the problems with the darkness of Paule Constable (FB)’s lighting design. Setting that aside, the rest of the production worked well. Matt Kinley‘s set and image design used a balcony on one side and archways on the other to create a wide variety of spaces, using a combination of rolled on, flown in, and projected set pieces. Some were extraordinarily effective, such as the catacomb effect in the sewers in the second act. Credit also goes to 59 Productions for the projection design, which also used images inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. This was also augmented by the Costume Design of Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland, which seemed both appropriately poor and rich depending on the scene, and seemed to fit the characters and their stations well. The wig and hair design of Campbell Young Associates also worked well. Mick Potter‘s sound design generally worked well, although there were points that it was muddled in the cavernous space that is the Pantages. Other production credits: Laura HuntAssociate Costume Designer; Nic Gray – Associate Sound Designer; Richard Pacholski – Associate Lighting Designer; David Harris and Christine Peters – Associate Set Design; Corey Agnew – Assoc. Director; Richard Barth (FB) – Resident Director; Tara Rubin CSA (FB), Kaitlin Shaw, CSA – Casting; Ryan Parliment – Company Manager; Jack McLeod (FB) – Production Stage Manager; Jess Gouker (FB) – Stage Manager; Joseph Heaton (FB) – Asst. Stage Manager; Broadway Booking Office NYC – Tour Booking &c; NETworks Presentations – Production Management; Gentry & Associates – General Management. A Cameron Mackintosh and NETworks Presentation.

Les Misérables continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through June 2, 2019. If you haven’t seen the show before, it is worth seeing. If you have seen the show before and love the show, you’ll certainly enjoy this outing. If you have seen the show and are looking for a new take, this might be hit or miss with the darker lit staging. Tickets are available through the Pantages box office.  Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar or through TodayTix.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Tonight brings another tour: Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Universe (101) at The Main (FB) in Santa Clarita (we loved it at HFF18), as well as The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB).  May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. The last weekend of May will see me at Bronco Billy – The Musical at Skylight Theatre (FB).

June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). If you are unfamilar with Fringe, there are around 380 shows taking place over the month of June, mostly in the stretch of Santa Monica Blvd between 1 bl W of La Brea to 1 bl E of Vine, but all generally in Hollywood. On a first pass, there were lots I was interested in, 30 I could fit on a calendar, but even less that I could afford. Here is my current Fringe schedule as of the date of this writeup. [Here’s my post with all shows of interest — which also shows my most current HFF19 schedule. Note: unlike my normal policy, offers of comps or discounts are entertained, but I have to be able to work them into the schedule with the limitations noted in my HFF19 post]:

In terms of non-Fringe theatre (which, yes, does exist): Currently, the first weekend of June is open, although I’m thinking about Ready Set Yeti Go at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) [if the publicist contacts me or I see it on Goldstar for Saturday]. Fringe previews start the next week. The end of June also brings Indecent at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on June 28, just before the busy last weekend of Fringe.

As for July, it is already filling up. Although the front of the month is currently open, July 20 brings Miss Saigon at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), followed by A Comedy of Errors from Shakespeare by the Sea (FB)/Little Fish Theatre(FB). The last weekend of July brings West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). August starts with an alumni Shabbat at camp, and The Play That Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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