This is how screwed up I am: when I was five, my favorite music was from the original Broadway cast of Les Miserables. I lost friends faster than a leper with severe body odor, and it was worth it. Over the years, Les Mis and I have had a somewhat tumultuous relationship, as it stands for some of the big-ticket tourist shows of Broadway I’ve come to really dislike, but why fight it – it’s a solidly good story with solidly good music, and that’s a foundation for something great. It can still be horrible, but it has the potential to be great.
Luckily, the current touring production is great. This is a paired down Les Mis whose watchword seems to be “economy.” It’s so tight that if it were a body builder, quarters could bounce off its shapely pecs. I’ll let that image sit for a little while…
What does this mean? Well, gone is the turntable stage that the show was so famous for – replaced instead by fairly limited scenery (mostly a couple of wing buildings that can be changed with small additions to suit most locations), and the real kicker – a very fluid, projected digital image on the backdrop that changed color and image to suit the setting. Billowing smokestacks for the hectic factory, the distant dome of the Sacred Heart in Paris….it also would be shown “pulling back” so that the marching students actually looked like they were going somewhere, as well as the winding sewers Valjean must pick through near the show’s climax.
Also, an INCREDIBLY small ensemble. They were punchy, though, I certainly didn’t feel like anything was missing. Everyone had a LOT of stage time. In fact, the cast was really solid – wiiiiith some exceptions.
I’m going to start with my highlight: Fantine. Not always my favorite character, but holy cheese and crackers, this girl had PUNCH. She was a strong Fantine, ready to do what must be done to survive, yet also pure and hauntingly beautiful. Her vocal range was lovely, and her emotions were very believable. That was the nice thing about this cast, most everything was really believable, which is saying a lot for a very complicated story that goes by very quickly; what’s that, Marius, you and Cosette have just met and you’re in love? Well, okay! Hanna didn’t buy it because he’s a heartless jerk, but I thought it was a very touching romance I was able to get behind.
Yes, this was a Les Mis full of very dynamic characters. Valjean had both the compassion and strength so vital to the character; I was a little concerned at first, since that is such an easy role to screw up, but he aged very well and he performed wonderfully. The compassiony bits are my favorite part about Valjean, and he shone in those. Eponine wasn’t JUST some boy crazy psycho, she was the strong character the play always tries to convince us she is. She did stuff and she didn’t really mope. I didn’t believe she was “in love” with Marius, but Hanna did believe that, so I think there’s no pleasing some people. I don’t know, it’s easy to get on Marius for being a weird stalker (and believe me, I won’t stop you), but I don’t know why Eponine thinks she’s going to bag the hot school boy. I can be as nice and pretty and perfect as I obviously am, but it’s still not likely I’m going to get Bradley Cooper. We just don’t live the same lives, so he’s more likely to get together with some starlet I disapprove of, the starlet in this case being a lovely bourgeoise.
Okay, let’s get to the things I didn’t like. There was only one thing I HATED: child Cosette. It’s a brief role, but a sweet one, calling for a little cherub girl with good pipes, and I know that sounds demanding, but it’s really not. The world is FULL of talent. Unfortunately, this production apparently ran out of time looking for genuinely sweet and talented little girls, so they went with one that could maybe fake. Which is what it was. It was fake and saccharine, and I HATED IT. A lot of people (Hanna included), dislike Cosette in general, but I’ve never felt that. As a character, I always felt she was sweet, albeit harmless, but I’ve come to the realization that I like her for her symbolic value. It doesn’t really matter that she doesn’t change as a character during the course of the show, because she changes others around her. There’s something a feminist could take offense to in that, but I have to get up early for work tomorrow, so let’s just move ahead.
And then there was….Javert. Eh….Javert has always historically been my favorite character. Heck, Terrence Mann is still my landmark for what a great Broadway baritone/antagonist could and SHOULD be. This guy could sing, he could act, but he was so non-threatening. This was another point where Hanna and I disagreed: he thought this portrayal was fine, and I just thought it was so tootheless. “Do not forget my name,” Javert instructs Valjean, and consequently the audience. He should be a figure of foreboding, driving the tension of Valjean’s life and therefore the plot with the threat of discovery. He should be a dark, obsessive figure with the power to bring everything to a halt. He….just wasn’t in this production. He just looked more annoyed and exasperated through out. In the scene where he catches Valjean dragging Marius out of the sewers, Hanna saw a man coming undone. Me, I saw a man with a facial expression of “God damn it, I do not have time for this today.” Consequently, his suicide was weird (also because they hooked him to a dolly and hoisted him upwards after jumping off the bridge, but we agreed that was probably due to spacial and technical limitations than gimmickry). I actually rolled my eyes during “Stars” because it felt so melodramatic. THIS WAS THE SONG THAT LOST ME FRIENDS IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. That’s not supposed to happen. I will say it makes me interested to see if Russel Crowe can pull off this complex role any better, but he’s just a bit too gritty and handsome for the obsessive, dark Javert, at least in my opinion. Besides, the best Javert has already happened, and it wasn’t Philip Quast and I’ll cut you if you say otherwise.
The show, however, made a lot of bold, different choices, and I think they really paid off. The chain gain was set on a prison galley instead of “wherever,” Grantaire was off the wall with drunken antics and intense emotions with the students, and “Master of the House” including a couple boning during the song. I wish I could make this up. There was a really neat moment during “Turning” where the mourning women brought out candles during the number, only to be picked up by the dead of the barricade while Marius laments in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” Of course, for all francophiles, the real question is whether they looked as good in their tricolors as Chauvelin in “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”
But let’s get to the title at last: this was a show that was willing to fight at the drop of a hat. Previous to this, I’ve only seen Valjean and Javert exchange the most cursory of blows. Even that is an over-generous way of putting “The law got knocked out cold by a middle-aged con.” Grantaire is scared to die? How dare you express natural fear, let’s fight about it. Fantine doesn’t want sex with that guy? Time to beat up hookers and chew bubble gum. And this is 19th century France, so gum is in short supply. Not to make it sound critical – it was a gritty, visceral portrayal. Again, it was another strong choice, and I think it worked, as indeed most of the production’s choices did. The barricade fights were also tense and believable, which can be a really hard thing to pull off on stage.
As always, these things always boil down to, “See it or don’t?” See it. Spend the forty bucks for the nosebleed seats we had, and have a really great three hours out – a three hours that go by very quickly, and believe me, I’ve sat through much shorter plays that felt much longer (on that note, a couple of lines were deleted, but mostly from the kids, and it just added to the tightness of the show, so we’ll let it slide). Preferably, don’t go with someone who will noisily eat popcorn during “Bring Him Home,” and oh my God I hate you Hanna!.
This was a solidly good show, and I really hope it continues a great tour. It continues playing at the Landmark until the 31, so get while the getting is good: And remember, the truth that once was spoken…to love another person is the see the face of God.
(Interestingly, googling for Terrence Mann as Javert pulled up a lot of images of him as Chauvelin instead, which if nothing else shows that the world still doesn’t realize Les Mis is NOT about the French Revolution, and also that I must continue to hate a good portion of humanity).