Friday, January 16, 2009

Personal Signature - Les Misérables - Musical Review

Les Misérables - Signature Max Theatre - Arlington, VA (Greater Washington, D.C.) - **** (out of 5)
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil, Book by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, Directed by Eric Schaeffer, Choreography by Karma Camp
Runs until February 22nd 2009

Vance at

This is a NEW version of Les Mis. It's the same show, same music, same lyrics, but with a new direction and style and most notably, without the turntable set.

Now that Les Mis is finally not on Broadway, it's available to be produced by regional theatres, but Cameron Mackintosh and co. are still handpicking the theatre companies, and the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA is one of the first (along with apparently 6 other companies in North America). The Signature is apparently the first to stage it in a small black box setting with seating on three sides of a thrust stage.

Seeing the world-famous Les Mis in a tiny theatre (280 people) with a cast that hasn't been trimmed for the size of the stage (28-member cast and a 14-piece orchestra) is half the fun. When there's only 6 rows max and 1 row in the balcony, you feel like you're practically falling into the show which is super up-close and personal and IN YOUR FACE. It's bold and loud and for such an epic musical, it's truly an interesting new experience.

I will confess though that while I really love Les Mis, I don't think it's the perfect musical (even if it might be the most seen musical in the world). The (now infamous) music is gorgeous and grande, and the plot based on Victor Hugo's book is literally HUGE, but to be honest, I don't think I EVER really knew what the story was about (and contrary to popular perception, it is NOT about the French Revolution, so I know I'm not the only one that has been mistaken for years). In fact, the problem with seeing this musical up-close and personal is that while it really emphasizes the greatness of the show, it also emphasizes some of the weaknesses, including some overdramatic sections and some of the slower sections.

Director Eric Schaeffer, scenic designer Walt Spangler and lighting designer Mark Lanks have truly mounted a dark and dingy version of 1800's France with a backlit shattered glass wall and piles of jagged stuff (think Rent but messier and darker) that surrounds a central platform that morphs into the seating area where the audience sits in the throngs of the action (with all four corners of the theatre being vitally used as part of the set). Chairs hang dangling above after being pulled up by the french workers and are left hovering until Marius sings "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables". A central square grid, beautifully underlit, serves as a central "stage" and rises and falls, particularly in Javert's new death scene. Tiny details such as a small water bowl serves as the water Jean Valjean drinks from in an early scene and it puts a different spin from the turntable set (no pun intended) so infamous from the Trevor Nunn and John Caird production seen around the world.

The Signature cast is made up of many from its regular D.C. company of actors with a few Broadway veterans taking some of the leads. Oddly, Greg Stone (Jean Valjean), and Stephanie Waters (Cosette) who played the same parts on Broadway, were probably the weakest of the actors. Tom Zemon (Javert, below) who also played the same role on Broadway was fine. But the standouts were some of the breakout performances from the local batch of actors.

Andrew C. Call (who I liked in the much derided Glory Days) is simply amazing as Marius here and truly redeems my earlier praises for this young up-and-coming actor.

Felicia Curry is superb as a colour-blind casting of Eponine (especially since she was Asian as a little girl). Tracy Lynn Olivera is great as Fantine.

Sherri L. Edelen and Christopher Bloch (above) are hilariously dark as Madame Thenardier and Thenardier.

The company is terrific and the best moments are when the full company comes out and sings the ensemble songs. The power of that, especially in such a small space, is truly stunning. With such an intimacy, the story unfolds much more clearly (although it also emphasizes how MUCH story there is, and even though I've seen this a few times before, I couldn't believe how much was happening so fast) and flaws are more glaring and if you're not a fan of the show, this won't convince you otherwise, but if you're a fan of Les Mis (and I know there are a lot of you out there), this is truly something not to be missed.

It was a great way to end a great year at the Signature last year and now that the show is doing so well (with such limited ticket availability), Les Mis has now been extended until February 22nd 2009.

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