Twenty-Five Years of Les Misérables — Visiting the Juggernaut

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 needs 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 program, or from 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. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy VK and Impulse!—two drum corps known for their general effect work as opposed to production perfection. Oh, sorry, I slipped into the mindset for tonight’s show.

For the most part, the production at the Ahmanson was excellent: the cast was perfect, the direction by Laurence Connor and James Powell was excellent, and the musical staging by Michael Ashcroft was a delight. But there were a few problems. Although I appreciate color-blind casting, it was a bit jarring for Éponine to change from a little white girl to a black young women; one wonders how about life in France in the 1800s can do that. More annoying, however, was the backstage. Theatre must preserve the illusion to the greatest extent possible whereever one sits in the theatre. We were all the way on the side in the orchestra, and it was disconcerting to see the backstage doors opening and closing, and the conductor monitor going on and off, in the rear stage, stage left portion of the theatre. This was especially jarring during Castle on a Cloud. Whoever designed the set to not have a curtain covering those areas should be sent to a French prison.

The cast for this production was excellent—strong singers, strong dancers, strong dramatic actors to the lowest ensemble member. All appeared to be fully enjoying and inhabiting their roles (I particularly recall the two women who, during one of Valjean’s big songs in the second act, were on stage rolling bandages and pouring mugs of wine). In the lead positions were J. Mark Mcvey as Jean Valjean and Andrew Varela as Javert. Mcvey had a voice with remarkable range (as demonstrated in Bring Him Home); it was a delight to hear him sing and to watch him. Varela was more controlled. In the second tier were Betsy Morgan (Fantine), Jenny Latimer (Cosette), Chasten Harmon (Éponine), and Justin Scott Brown (Marius). All were wonderful singers and actors. In the comic relief positions—and doing a wonderful job with the roles—were Michael Kostroff (Thénardier) and Shawna M. Hamic (Madame Thénardier). Rounding out the very large cast* were: Richard Barth (Swing—at our performance, Combeferre Fauchevelevent); Cathryn Basile (Crazy Whore, Ensemble); Julie Benko (Inkeeper’s Wife, Ensemble), Cole Burden (Courfeyrac), Briana Carlson-Goodman (Ensemble), Casey Erin Clark (Ensemble), Colin DePaula (Gavorche), Jason Forbach (Feuilly), Katherine Forrester (Little Cosette), Lucia Giannetta (Factory Girl, Ensemble), Ian Patrick Gibb (Constable, Jean Prouvaire), Jeremy Hays (Enjolras), Beth Kirkpatrick (Old Woman, Ensemble), Anastasia Korbal (Young Éponine), Cornelia Luna (Wigmaker, Ensemble), Benjamin Magnuson (Bishop of Digne, Babet), Jason Ostrowski (Factory Foreman, Dance Captain), Max Quinlan (Laborer, Montparnasse), John Rapson (Farmer, Bamatabois, Claquesous), Sarah Shahinian (Young Whore, Ensemble), Alan Shaw (Constable, Joly), Joseph Spieldenner (Innkeeper, Grantaire, Major Domo), Joe Tokarz (Champmathieu, Brujon, Loud Hailer), and Aliya Victoriya (Ensemble).
[*: I’m listing the cast we saw, and not listing u/s or swings we did not see]
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical: Matt Kinley did the scenic and image design. The sets were fine, in and of themselves: barricades that came in and out, factory settings, ballustrades, and so forth. The more intriguing aspect were the images: projections were used to provide locales such as the sewers of Paris; these were very effective, especially when they were moving. Lighting was by Paule Constable and was extremely effective, although there were points where extremely bright white lights were shining to the eyes of those on the sides of the theatre. This was an example of the extensive use of backlighting to create mood. The sound, by Mick Potter, was odd. The orchestra seemed over-amplified at times (perhaps this is where we were sitting), and there were some odd echoes during soft points. I’ll write this off as poor tuning to the specific auditorium; otherwise, the amplification worked fine and actors were mostly audible. The costumes, by Andreane Neofitou, with additional costumes by Christine Rowland, were delightful and appeared appropriate to period.

Musical supervision was by Dan Bowling. Robert Billig was Music Director and Conductor of the 16-piece orchestra (quite a large group). Original orchestrations were by John Cameron, with new orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke, and additional orchestrations by Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker.

Rounding out the credits: Jean-Marc Natel (Original French Text); James Fenton (Additional Material), Anthony Lyn (Associate Director), Christopher Key (UK Associate Director), Tara Rubin Casting (Casting), Townsend Teague (Company Manager), Corey Agnew (Resident Director), Trinity Wheeler (Production Stage Manager), Heather Chockley (Stage Manager), Mitchell B. Hodges (Assistant Stage Manager).

Les Miserables” continues at the Ahmanson until July 31. HotTix may be available. You can also buy tickets online; I forget if they are on Goldstar.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Tonight takes us out to Riverside to see a Drum Corps show: Western Corps Connection on July 3 in Riverside. The following weekend is open, as Jerry Springer: The Opera did not work out datewise. A possibility is Working” at the Ruby Theatre in Hollywood; it is their closing weekend. The weekend of Carmageddon brings “Twist: A New Musical” (July 16, Pasadena Playhouse, ticketed) and “Jewtopia” (July 17, REP East, ticketed). The wekeend of July 23 brings Dolly Parton (July 23, Hollywood Bowl) and “Shrek” (July 24, Pantages Theatre, ticketed). July closes with “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed). August brings “Doubt” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20, and possibly the last Summer Evening at the Huntington with the Quarteto Neuvo on August 27. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22, and (hopefully) Bernadette Peters at VPAC on October 16. October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in August, September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


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