I feel cheated. Which pisses me off. Julianna’s big Hannukah gift was a ticket to see Les Miserables at the Signature Theater in Arlington, VA. They have a special “Miz kids” package wherein you get 4 tickets for $125 (plus 4 cookies and 4 drinks at intermission), which is a terrific deal, given that single tix are around 80 dollars. Still, not small potatoes. But Julianna had expressed a wish to see Les Mis sometime and I hadn’t seen it since its pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center in 1987. I was so high up in the balcony, I expected an oxygen mask, but it was still a staggering experience. I was wracked with sobs at the end, along with everyone else in the theater. It was magical. I was SO excited to go again.
Signature has re-imagined the staging, as the classic bits–the rotating stage, the marching wedge with the big red flag, Javert’s leap from the bridge–are property of the…touring company? I can’t recall, but you can’t do them. So Signature, a small edgy-type theater, worked with Cameron Mackintosh to re-stage it. The theater seats only 280, with a balcony, so the whole feel is going to be different, anyway. Les Mis is a BIG show, an opera really, so I was really intrigued to see how they would cram it into a black box.
On the whole, the staging and sets were fabulous. There are runways coming in from the corners so that the audience is seated somewhat in the action. There is seating on three sides of the stage, and the back wall is made of translucent panels reminiscent of 19th century warehouse windows. They are lit in various ways to set the mood or simulate explosions during the battle. They raise in the middle–reminding me a bit of a garage–to allow entrance of actors and chunks of set. The pieces that become the barricades look like twisted metal and girders. The center of the stage has grates from which light and/or fog can emerge for ambience and there is a platform of grates that can be raised and lowered to the stage. And then…there are chairs. Shiny dining room chairs, on ropes, hanging from the ceiling. The opening scene is gorgeous–shirtless dirty men in poses gripping these ropes. It looks like socialist realism (which I love). But once the song starts, they start hauling those chairs up and down on pulleys, to simulate hard labor. (Other jobs represented in the show–scraping grates rhythmically with metal rollers and stretching cloth and putting it in a bag. Steve said, “No wonder there was a revolution, these jobs are stupid!”) And I like the pulley thing b/c it’s easy to make it look grueling, but the chairs made it…silly. The only humor in this show should come from the Thenardiers. And maybe when Grantaire says “it’s better than an oooopera!” That’s it. Snorts of derision should be right out. Having the chairs descend slightly for “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables”? Made me snort.
It’s a dark show. Thematically and, in this staging, literally. Most of the set is black, the clothes are blacks, browns, dingy dark blues. Only Cosette and Marius are allowed a splash of color. Oh, and Eponine’s coat. There aren’t even stars during “Stars.” Dark, I tells ya. But in this small setting, it totally works. You can see and make out who everyone is without the costume having to telegraph it to the 3rd balcony (and, you know, every time characters appear they sing their names–“My name is John Valjean” “And, I’m Javert! Do not forget my name! [but if you do, it’s okay b/c I’ll tell you when I come out again. Or someone else will mention it. So it’s okay, really]”) The lighting was very dramatic, with lots of spots and glowy bits. I really liked it. Well done, Signature crew!
Our heroes…well, we’ll get to Valjean in a minute. Javert was played by Tom Zemon with a real love of the role. How can you not love Javert, really, but he seemed to relish it, stalking around in his cool black coat. Sometimes he went…a little nuts, and in the suicide scene, I had the urge to go up to him and brush at his mouth: “Hold on, you have something…right there in the corner of your mouth…Oh, it’s a piece of the scenery!” But the character can take a good bit of bombast. The suicide scene’s staging did piss me off, though. In the “real” show, as in the book, Javert leaps off a bridge into the Seine. In spite of his morals and dedication to what is Right, he descends in death. in the Signature staging, he shoots himself in the head, drops to the platform and is raised, bathed in red light. It felt wrong AND it cut off the last note of his song which should be magnificent. Zemon has a good voice, and I wanted to hear him do it. Poo. On the whole, though, liked the portrayal. He looked the part and sounded the part and seemed to enjoy the part. In a couple of places he either dropped a line or sang a wrong word. You have to feel for actors in Les Miz, because everyone in the audience knows ALL the words. At least half of them think they coud do a better job that you and secretly hope they’ll suddenly have to fill in. I know I’m ready if I get the call.
Eponine, my second favorite character in the show, was played by Felicia Curry. She has a rich, soulful voice, not usually what I expect of Eponine, but really lovely. She’s black, which should be unimportant, but it does take a moment to adjust. But you do so, gladly, b/c her voice is great. Incidentally, Young Eponine was played by an Asian girl, which caused us to make inappropriate giggly jokes later. She was, perhaps, a bit too smiley for my taste. I prefer more wistfulness in my Eponine. She didn’t break my heart the way Frances Ruffele did. Her dying scene, “A Little Fall of Rain” usually kills me. I can’t even sing it without crying. But I was dry-eyed b/c it was awkwardly acted and just odd looking. Not at all poignant. I can’t quite place why, but part of it was that Curry herself sounded to be crying through it, barely able to sing towards the end. Part of what makes Eponine so tragic is that she just takes this stuff. She’s strong. So suck it up, babe, and sing me my song. I’ll do any crying that needs to be done. It’s an opera, not a movie. I do not seek realism here.
Marius was played by Andrew Call. His voice is lovely. He’s not particularly dashing to gaze upon, but nice enough. honestly, the character is a snore and Call didn’t do much to put that aside. He played the role, acted well, sang like an angel, and that’s enough, really.
Cosette was a nice surprise. I was utterly un-moved by the 1987 Cosette, and I don’t tend to enjoy a screechy soprano. Stephanie Waters had a lovely clarity of voice that made Cosette a more interesting character rather than the sighing maiden that had bored me before. She moves well and makes you feel that she really digs that Maruis dude, for whatever reason (sis, there are cuter students, really). I see in the program that she’s played Cinderella in Into the Woods, which seems exactly right. If you know that character, that’s her voice.
Chris Sizemore (brutal name, as he’s a short dude) sang Enjolras well enough to make me want to join the rebellion even though I know it goes badly awry. He moves a bit stiffly, not seeming to know what to do with his hands, but the boy can sing. I was not ready to lose him on the barricade. At least he fell gracefully. One of the students fell backwards and was hanging upside down from the structure. Which was realistic and all, but given that we all know he’s NOT dead, we were kind of worried about all the blood rushing to his head and were wishing that piece of the barricade would go back into the garage so that he could sit up, poor thing. The students in general were great, choral parts to the music were blissful and stirring. The same for the ladies, they really worked well together and their voices came together beautifully. The kids sang well, but I still loathe Gavroche. That stupid “Little People” song should have been dropped before the show ever left London. It’s jarring and brings the show to a stop. hate it. No offense to the wee actors. Whom I never really like b/c kids with stage presence are creepy.
A particular note on Aaron Reeder who played the Bishop and later a student– His voice was the best in the show. In group scenes, I could hear his beautiful notes among the others. I see in the program that he has done a lot of opera–I’d totally go see that. I’ll join his fanclub. Gorgeous, gorgeous voice. Such a shame it was so brief a part. Or maybe he’s really good in that shallow range, I don’t know, but I loved what I heard.
The Thenardiers! Christopher Bloch and Sheri L. Edelen were fantastic. As good as any Thenardiers I’ve ever seen or heard. Their singing was spot on, their acting the best of the cast. They were clearly having an absolute blast and it made those scenes the best in the show. From what I’ve gathered, they’re both well-known in the area and I’d like to see them again.
Fantine, played by Tracy Lynn Olivera, was lovely. She kind of sang/spoke her first lines in the factory and we were terribly afraid that she was going to chat the whole part, but thankfully she has a gorgeous voice and sang movingly. Her return at the end of the show is usually the point at which ones gentle sniffles turn to body-wracking sobs. But alas it was not to be. All because of:
Valjean. When we arrived, I noted that we were getting the understudy Valjean. Greg Stone was out and would be replaced by Russel Sunday. I think the only time I’ve ever been to a big show in which at least one actor wasn’t out was that Kennedy Center Les Mis. So even though it WAS the main character, I wasn’t too worried. I try to focus on how awesome it must be for the actor. His big break! Woo! When the lights came up and I saw the 24601 on the chest very near my face (so, if the actual number is tattooed on them, how did Javert arrest the wrong guy? Clerical branding error?), I felt a little stir of disappointment b/c he didn’t look like Valjean. Kinda puffy. Smallish head. Steve pointed out at intermission that he held himself like Jack Black–puffy guy pretending his bulk is muscle. But okay, size-ist of me. Let it slide. His movements started pretty wooden, but did get better. He still isn’t much with the stage presence. He’d utterly vanish in a bigger theater. But when he sang, I forgave all, because he had this beautiful rich tenor. In fact he sounded quite a bit like my dear Colm Wilkinson. So I was going to run with it. This show is about the songs, after all. And all was well. Until “A Heart Full of Love” when he had to hit some of those super high notes. And he…sounded like Tiny Tim. Steve and I looked at each other with a “WTF?” But it was just a little phrase and then “One Day More” (which was a bit muddled, which bums), and then intermission. Julianna and her friend Molly were also confused by the sudden falsetto, so I told them that he just missed the note and soldiered on rather than trying to find the right one. A mistake. Otherwise a lovely voice. But there’s a lot of those high notes in Act II. And “Bring Him Home” is almost all high. And it wasn’t a mistake. He sang all of them like Tiny Tim. It sounded as if he were mocking someone by singing in a girl’s voice. Then the song would drop back into his range and it was beautiful again. Angel-Tiny Tim-Angel-Tiny Tim. I began to wince in anticipation of the coming squeak. Horrible. I couldn’t look at him. He had to know, right? He had to be thinking, “Holy crap I suck” right? I began to imagine him going backstage and having the other actors pat him and say, “it’s okay, Russ, you’ll hit it next time!” and dammit, that is NOT what I paid for. I want to be moved, not embarrassed because the Second Spearcarrier got a promotion he can’t handle. Oh, and Valjean’s super-human strength? Not so much, he couldn’t carry Marius into and out of the sewers and ended up kind of dragging him on his back. Which, again, caused me to think about the actor instead of the character. By the end, Fantine could not drag his squeaky ass to heaven fast enough. And so I feel cheated. What was otherwise a really good show has be almost ruined by a performance that was otherwise pretty good. I need to see it again to wipe this away. Someone send me some money.