Another Round of Les Misérables
I was not planning on seeing the latest Broadway staging of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s Les Miserables, the new production, brought to us by Cameron Mackintosh at the Imperial Theatre, but at the last minute, I filled in for a friend of a friend who couldn’t make it. So there I was, about thirty years after first seeing this glorious musical in London when it was in previews starring Patti LuPone. I saw that production twice with this stellar cast (Lupone broke my heart magnificently at every moment she could), and I think I saw the New York City’s production, with that same beautiful revolving stage design, about two more times just before it closed. It was heavenly. I remember being swept away with the intensely moving story and sumptuous music and songs. Tears were in my eyes at so many emotionally heart-breaking moments, that I left fully satisfied and happy each and every time.
This new staging, with set and image design by Matt Kinley “inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo”, musical staging by Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt, and directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, still carried a lot of the emotionally powerful moments, but overall, left me feeling underwhelmed and slightly sad, but not in a good way. The sets felt small and cramped compared to that expansive previous set design, that elevated this piece to a majestic level. Too many times, this piece felt cramped and tight, and leaned towards the amateur. I was told this was a touring company production, designed to fit onto numerous stages all over the country and easy to ship, and I could totally see that. It also made me think that this is what the original production might have looked like had the piece been designed traditionally without the flair and creativity of that first production team. Don’t get me wrong, I have a feeling that if you had never seen the first incarnation, this design would be completely engaging and satisfactory, but anyone with the luck to have seen the original Broadway production would walk away comparing and contrasting, and feeling disappointed.
But the music and some of those powerful emotional moments still deliver with a vengeance. Tears came to my eyes at numerous moments, and I knew that I would enjoy myself from the moment the Bishop of Digne (a wonderful Adam Monley) told the constables that he had in fact given Jean Valjean (a magnificent John Owen-Jones) the churche’s silver (that he in fact had stolen) and that he had forgotten to take the more valuable pieces of silver during the epic Prologue and ‘Soliloquy’. These moments lasted all the way through the beautiful ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ (sung with such loving sadness by Alison Luff), the sad song of all sad songs, ‘On My Own’ by the powerful and beautifully voiced Brennyn Lark, and Valjean’s stunning ‘Bring Him Home’ and ‘Who Am I?’ and all points in-between. I was moved at so many moments by these glorious-voiced actors bringing these songs to life throughout this show. My only criticism of them is not directed at the actors so much as the director. It feels like these performers were instructed to gesture through the song aggressively, so everyone could know exactly what they were singing about in case the audience couldn’t comprehend the words. If they sang about something going on in their heads, they pointed at their heads, etc. etc. The glorious ‘Bring Him Home’ sung with incredible intensity and love by Owen-Jones (such a beautiful voice!) felt like it was being physically performed by a stereotypical Italian grandfather, swinging and pointing to explain every moment. Actors rushed forward and thrust their arms out at us and around at every swelling musical moment in every song, and all I wanted them to do is just to stand still and sing these glorious songs, letting the words and the music speak for themselves. I’m guessing it was a directorial choice based on the audience they assumed would be there, and not a mass personal acting choice.
The weakest moments were the ones played for humor. The Thenardier husband and wife team (Rachel Izen and Gavin Lee), while performing ‘Master of the House’ number individually well, the choreography and gesturing felt messy and clumsy as did the Student’s songs, ‘The People’s Song’ and ‘Drink With Me to Days Gone By’ with the numerous over-done attempts of humor and drunkenness. Marius (the extremely handsome Chris McCarrell) was sadly the weakest voiced of the lot and would visually get lost in the crowd, although he somewhat redeemed himself with a better then expected version of one of my favorite songs, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’. His voice struggled to be strong, but his softness worked with this sad sweet song.
All in all, we are there to hear all these aforementioned loved songs. And in generally, they are all sung beautifully, and the music sounds glorious. If I tried to silence the comparative voice in my head, and just accept the non-expansive vision of this musical in front me, I would be pleased. I must say that I was happy to have these songs inserted back into my head, and I’ve been humming the numerous melodies that bring me great joy and happiness all this weekend. So this small simple staging still packs a musically beautiful and powerful punch, and I’m grateful for that.
here’s a video of the original cast of this revival:
and here’s the glorious Patti LuPone singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, my first and favorite Fantine: