Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Les Misérables in the Majestic's audience last night

Posted By on Wed, Jan 4, 2012 at 12:28 PM

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Miserable, abject, and demoralized, shaking their fists at God and at all the sundry injustices of the world: yes, these were the tardy patrons at last evening’s performance of Les Misérables at San Antonio's Majestic Theatre. Apparently prevented—perhaps even barricaded—by ushers from sitting until after the musical’s prologue, these wretched mortals shuffled to their seats in a strange, if wan, facsimile of the suffering onstage—indeed, the title Les Misérables flashed at the exact moment that hordes of patrons jostled their way through the aisles, blocking the views of pretty much everybody.  Score one for Victor Hugo, I guess: for a few minutes, we were all more or less misérables.

So: for those who already have tickets for what seems to be a sold-out run, please, please, please allow yourself an extra ten minutes to settle in, and to enjoy an impressive and well-considered production of an iconic pop opera. Of course, pop operas might not be to your taste; my companion for the evening thought that Les Miz was one of the strangest things he’d ever seen on stage, and it occurred to me later that if you hadn’t grown up listening to sung-through pop operas like, say, Phantom of the Opera, then you might find Les Miz to be a singularly bizarre cultural artifact. But there was a time—the 1980s—when such grandiose fare regularly played the Great White Way, and, indeed, the original production of Les Miz only closed in 2003.

The current touring production is based on the recent Broadway revival, but features some surprisingly sweeping changes. Gone is the head-spinning turntable set—deliciously skewered by the cabaret show Forbidden Broadway—and the orchestrations have been retooled and tightened; a new directing team—Laurence Connor and James Powell—has reimagined the show as a painting sprung to life, with redesigned sets and projections by Matt Kinley and Fifty-Nine Productions. In some ways, this emphasis on painterly art and atmosphere serves the musical even better than the original design; the evening is already heavy on bombast, and the new art direction, including some fluid cinematic sequences, helps to mediate the unrelenting grimness of the material. (I wish that Paule Constable’s generally dim, moody lighting had done likewise.) The second act’s battle sequences are especially impressive pieces of stagecraft: the aftermath of a students’ revolt—a tangle of splintered furniture and dreams—is remarkably moving.

Les Miz demands excellent singing, and its score—by Claude-Michel Schönberg with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer—is among the most cherished in contemporary theater. As the eternally prosecuted Jean Valjean, Broadway veteran J. Mark McVey brings an impressive vocal power to a demanding role, including the second act showstopper “Bring Him Home.” (It was here that I first noticed fellow audience members in tears and even sniffling. I refuse, however, to coin the term les snifférables.) Valjean’s escape from the uncompromising detective Javert (an excellent Andrew Valera) sets into motion a series of increasingly distressing events, in which women are often collateral damage: understudy Casey Erin Clark is fine as “I Dreamed a Dream” Fantine, but the real find is Chasten Harmon as the star-crossed Éponine. (Her “On My Own” is simply lovely.) Understudy James Zannelli took the stage as bottom-feeder Thenardier, but is overshadowed by the shenanigans of his equally villainous wife, here played with brio by Shawna M. Hamic (especially in the rousing “Master of the House” scene). And what a pleasure it is—in these days of fiscal belt-tightening—to see a stage populated by such a huge and varied ensemble. (There are actually separate credits for “Young Whore” and “Crazy Whore.” Wow.)

At three hours, Les Misérables isn’t for the faint of heart: as a narrative, its condensation of Hugo’s sprawling epic is something of a fool’s errand, and the producers have wisely included a plot synopsis for those unfamiliar with either the original novel or subsequent adaptations. But as entertainment, Les Miz still has the power to affect the audience on a purely emotional, even visceral level: it might not stand up to much theological analysis—basically saints and sinners, everywhere—but as a big ol’ melodrama, it’s hard to beat. (And pass the hanky, please; I think I’ve got something in my eye.)

— Thomas "A Heart Full of Love" Jenkins, Current theatre critic.

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