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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

25th Anniversary Production of Les Misérables

Also see Bob's review of [title of show]

Les Miserables
Andrew Varela
"Cameron Mackintosh's New 25th Anniversary Production" of Les Misérables is ensconced at the Paper Mill Playhouse for a six week, 47 performance American premiere engagement prior to an American tour. High ticket demand and packed houses have already made Les Misérables a major success for Paper Mill. Still, much work remains to be done if the production is to add to the luster of this beloved musical and demonstrate to new audiences the reasons for its enduring popularity.

Co-Directors Lawrence Connor and James Powell have directed Les Misérables in a manner which places the emphasis on its weaknesses. Each song is sung directly to the audience as if it is a big solo spot or eleven o'clock number meant to bring down the house rather than a reflection of character and situation. Thus, we are watching performances rather than Victor Hugo's mostly sympathetic, put-upon people. Yes, there is bombast in the music, but it co-exists with beautiful soaring melodies and outstanding lyrics which are the centerpieces of solid, if choppy, episodic storytelling. However, when so many songs are declaimed in the style of the 1995 Royal Albert Hall Concert rather than smoothly integrated into the storytelling, the episodic nature of the compressed plot becomes far more glaring. One result of our reduced attachment to the characters is that after Javert's suicide, the production becomes a long anti-climactic slog until it is rescued by the moving finale in which Jean Valjean is united in Christ with his loved ones who passed before him.

On the other end of theatre songs being distorted from their original meaning, we have songs sung like jazzy pop power ballads (i.e., "On My Own"). This style not only fails the story telling and character presentation, but it is jarring and musically unsettling.

A major detriment to this production is that it is largely shrouded in darkness. For no particular reason, daylight and indoor scenes are so dimly lit, it is as if we are in the dead of night. Repeatedly, the lights are raised and lowered throughout any number of scenes for little in the way of discernible reason. This adds an off-putting artificiality to the whole enterprise.

While the set design of Matt Kinley, which is abetted by digital projections, has its strengths, it is often reductive. Clearly designed for touring, the sides of the stage are often occupied by sliding building fronts which reduce the central area and its background to varying, but significant, extents. Additionally, the evocative projections ("inspired by paintings of Victor Hugo") only cover somewhat over half (the lower portion) of the rear wall. These elements combine to make many of the scenes appear to be set in cut-down, small boxes placed in the middle of a stage too large for the production. The barricade, which looks more like a bandstand, appears to be the same abstract construct which earlier represented the Thénardier tavern in Montfermeil. There are moving digital projections of the sewers and streets of Paris late in the second act which are most effective. This Les Misérables could use a lot more of them.

The performances of the American cast are hampered by the misguided direction, but will likely improve with time. Lawrence Clayton modulates his singing more than the others, but is a rather stolid Valjean. Betsy Morgan (Fantine) is at a constant high pitch but her high notes on "I Dreamed a Dream" are most lyrical.

Michael Kostroff (Thénardier) and Shawna M. Hamic (Madame Thénardier) are a mismatch. Kostroff, who speaks American English, is a bit bland. Thus the brassier Hamic, who sports a light British accent, steals "Master of the House" right out from under him. Given that it was the London production that originally brought Les Misérables to our shores, our ears are attuned to hearing it with Brit accents (although American accents would be fine). However, the directors should get the Thénardiers together on this.

The young adults who enter when Les Misérables gets down to the Paris revolt of 1832—Chasten Harmon (Eponine), Jenny Latimer (Cosette), Jon Fletcher (Marius) (u/s) and Jeremy Hays (Enjolras)—all acquit themselves well vocally and dramatically. Her pop power ballad notwithstanding, Harmon brings the most dramatic shading to her role. Anastasia Korbal, who alternates with Katherine Forrester, played Young Cosette (each also alternates in the role of Young Eponine). Benjamin Magnuson brings strength to the small role of the Bishop, whose kindness brings salvation to Valjean.

In this production Jean Valjean's 19-year incarceration has been spent as an impressed oarsman on a naval vessel. The main effects of this change are that his punishment seems harsher, and Javert's delivery of his release papers seems to come out of left field.

There is one scene late in the first act when all the elements of the writing, performance and production come alive with the beauty, drama and power that have not yet coalesced for much of this production. It is set at night on a Parisian bridge. Seemingly for the first time, there is a setting which fills the width of the stage. It is nighttime, but the stage is softly aglow. Four large lamps are spread across the bridge, and visually arresting stars fill the sky which has an incandescent glow. At the center of the bridge, Andrew Valera, whose stage presence and dramatic intensity provides the production's emotional center, further illuminates the harsh righteousness with which he must view his rigid cruelty with his expansive and eloquent, richly sung, heartfelt "Stars." This scene earned the production its first sustained, enthusiastic applause. It is now the highlight of this newly conceived production of Les Misérables. Hopefully, it will point the way for its evolution.

Les Misérables continues performances (Tuesday: 12/21 at 7 pm /12/28 at 1:30 pm/ Evenings: Wednesday-Sunday(except. 12/24,12/25) at 7 pm; Matinees: Thursday, Saturday, Sunday (except 12/25) and Friday 12/24 at 1:30 pm) through December 30, 2010, at Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343. Online: www.papermill.org.

Les Misérables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg; Music by Schonberg; Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Cast: Lawrence Clayton (Jean Valjean); Andrew Varela (Javert); Benjamin Magnuson (Bishop of Digne/Babet); Richard Todd Adams (Foreman); Betsy Morgan (Fantine); Katherine Forrester and Anastasia Korbal (Young Cosette and Young Eponine); Shawna M. Hamic (Madam Thénardier); Michael Kostroff (Thénardier); Josh Caggiano and Lewis Grosso (Gavroche); Chasten Harmon (Eponine); Jenny Latimer (Cosette); Jeremy Hayes (Enjolras); Jon Fletcher (Marius) (u/s for Justin Scott Brown); and Cathryn Basile, Julie Benko, Cole Burden, Casey Erin Clark, Briana Carlson-Goodman, Lucia Giannetta, Ian Patrick Gibb, Ben Gunderson, Jason Forbach, Cooper Grodin, Cornelia Luna, John Rapson, Heather Jane Rolff, Sarah Shahinian, Alan Shaw, Joseph Spieldenner, Joe Tokarz, Aliya Victoriya.


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- Bob Rendell



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