Les Miserables and 1776
The recently opened production of the long-running London and Broadway pop musical does a good job of minimizing many of Les Miserables' sins, while accenting the show's strengths. In the end, you have a far more intimate version of the musical – one that brings home the romance and heartbreak of the story.
Crafted by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg from Victor Hugo's novel, Les Miserables spearheaded a musical revival in the 1980s. The show has been so successful, in fact, that it has only recently been available for local theaters to produce. So, most people have only experienced the show in its big Broadway-style incarnation. What that version has in spectacle, it lacks in intimacy.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Les Miz follows Valjean, a man who – at the show's beginning – has served 19 years in a French prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Once released, he discovers the outside world of the early 19th century is just as tough and eventually goes into hiding. Along the way, he is hounded by lawman Javert and adopts young Cosette. The story finally settles down in Paris where Valjean and Cosette get wrapped up in a student revolution and she discovers her young love, Marius.
On the big stage, the story and especially the characters can be overwhelmed by the production. Here, everything is dialed down a step. There's no turntable to rotate the sets, no massive set pieces. Instead, the cast performs in a gallery setting, bringing out pieces of set to accent the action. What it loses in sweep it more than gains in real emotional connection. This, in turn, allows the actors to be more than cogs in a massive music-making machine.
At the top of the cast are Thomas Schumacher as Valjean and Keith Rice as Javert. Schumacher does well with a considerably difficult role, though he seems to be more comfortable singing in the higher ranges. Rice slips fully into Javert, making him more than a one-note character.
While Cosette and Marius are a bit bland as characters, Ali Littrell and Ben Johnson do good work in the roles. More interesting is Eponine, another young woman with her eyes of Marius. Zoe Pappas brings all the pain and love of this tortured character to the stage.
While the story is mainly about the two leads, a third character provides another view. Thenardier starts as a thieving innkeeper and eventually ends up just as a thief. David Anthony Brinkley makes him a character that seems both exhausted and full of the opportunities that surround him – opportunities he needs to exploit to survive.
Throughout the show, director Michael Brindisi adds touches of humanity to keep us attuned to the very human toll of the story. For example, while on the barricades, youngster Gavroche rushes out to hunt for unspent bullets from the dead bodies. In earlier productions, this has happened in full view of the audience. Here, it happens behind the barricades. All we hear are shots, and then the doomed youngster sings his song of defiance and youthful exuberance as he dies. In the past, I've found the scene to be purely manipulative. Here, the loss of youth struck me right in the heart. Just as intended.
Which means even if some of the music drives you nuts and the story threatens to overheat at every turn, the solid performances throughout and the strong production means the story can still reach the heart.
Les Miserables is presented at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, 501 W. 78th Street, Chanhassen. For more information, call 952-934-1525 and 1-800-362-3515 or visit www.chanhassentheatres.com.
Those individual parts, however, are quite amazing. The story of how the Declaration of Independence was drafted, and how it led the colonies into a new nation, is a thrilling one, even if it plays out via parliamentary procedure. At the heart of Peter Stone/Sherman Edwards' telling is John Adams, the Massachusetts firebrand who drove the effort by sheer force of will. Teamed up with Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, they politic the assembled congress, fighting about the language of the declaration all the way.
The show rolls with these characters and there are terrific performances throughout, not only from the main trio (played by Michael Thomas Holmes, Peter Michael Goetz and Tyson Forbes), but their allies (including Raye Birk as the crusty rep from Rhode Island, Stephen Hopkins) and their antagonists (such as Bradley Greenwald as Edward Rutledge, who gets the show's most memorable musical moment with the slavery song "Molasses to Rum").
Still, the show is too long (running a tad over three hours) and much of the music drags it down. It's not that it is necessarily bad, and the vocal performances are strong throughout, but the songs just aren't as interesting as all the action around them.
In the end, 1776 is a frustrating evening, full of good elements and a great story, but one where it doesn't all come together as a whole.
1776 runs through Aug. 26 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Ave., Minneapolis. For tickets and more information, call 612-377-2224 or visit www.guthrietheater.org.