Michael John Dunaway Lifestream

September 27, 2008

My Les Miserables review (for Paste)

Edward Watts' Enjolras, as strong in body as in voice

Edward Watts' Enjolras rallies the students once more

Unabridged version of a review posted I wrote for Paste…see the published version here.

At 23, Les Mis is the New Kid in Town Again

Michael Dunaway

When I heard that after 23 years uber-producer Cameron Mackintosh had retooled his great Les Miserables (and was premiering the changes in Atlanta), I was simultaneously excited and horrified. Of all the musicals of our generation, Les Mis is not only easily the greatest and most enduring, but also the most unlikely – a three hour plus show of all original music, based on a French novel over a hundred years old and over fourteen hundred pages long, entitled (loosely translated) “The Wretched,” and which when not concerning itself with the plight of the urban poor dwells largely on the fundamental theological conflict between justice and mercy. Not exactly “Oklahoma!” material, that.

So despite my faith in Mackintosh, I was worried for my favorite show — worried especially that the profundity and moral heft of the show (far exceeding that of any musical I’ve ever seen) would be compromised, “updated” into submission. And just from an aesthetic standpoint, I was awfully worried at the news that the famous turntable from the original production was gone as well – no more dramatic spins of the barricade to see what’s happening on the other side. For goodness’ sake, would I even recognize this Les Mis?

I needn’t have worried. This production is easily the strongest of all the traveling Les Mis shows I’ve seen. The sets are sparser than in the original, but the addition of a projection screen upstage is a marvelous stroke, utilizing original paintings by Victor Hugo himself. Most of the business previously enabled by the turntable is handled by the more traditional theatrical practices of moving across the stage as the scene shifts, or by brief changes with lights down, or with another curtain separating an ongoing downstage scene from the upstage scene change. The delight in the audacity of the turntable technique is lost, but with one notable exception (the iconic view of Enjolras’ dead, flag-draped body revealed on the other side of the barricade as it spins), there are no major moments that are adversely affected. And the richer, more textured (and more abstract) scenery in the projections is a great addition.

And the show itself is marvelous as well. Rob Evan, the man most associated with the title roles of Jekyll and Hyde in the minds of most theatergoers, has of course long been an accomplished and beloved Jean Valjean as well. This show is a bit of a moment for him, as the Decatur native has recently moved his family back to Atlanta after 12 years in New York (see profile). You’ll be seeing a lot more of him. That’s a very good thing indeed, as his work here shows. His voice is a higher, gentler one than many of his fellow Valjeans, and the effect is a moving one in some of the softer moments in the show, and especially in the sweet moments with the young Cosette. Evan is also very obviously comfortable inhabiting the part, having performed it so many times, and his comfort shows – you never get the feeling he’s putting Valjean on, but rather that he’s living him. Valjean is a formidable job for any actor, between the aging the actor has to pull off, the huge vocal range required, and the sheer emotional and spiritual weight of the part. With the exception of the great Colm Wilkinson, Evan is the best I’ve seen.

Another of the greatest strengths of this production could not have been more of a revelation to me. Les Miserables has always been a bit of a challenge for first-time viewers who haven’t read the book – unless you’re going to do a Nicholas Nickleby-style multi-nighter, there’s only so much backstory the writers can cram into one show. You learn Les Mis slowly, and each time you see it, it grows in your mind and heart. One of the notable casualties of the time constraints is, I think, the Marius-Cosette love story, which has always seemed forced and thin to me in the musical. I can only assume it’s director Fred Hanson’s master stroke to cast in those two roles actors (Anderson Davis and Deborah Lew) who either are or seem, and certainly act, much younger than previous incarnations. The result is stunning. The scene where they declare their love, for example, which was previously the weakest scene of each production I had seen, becomes a charming, energized, inspired moment. Instead of two noble and pretty but largely bloodless characters inching their way toward each other, Hanson gives us, much like Zefirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, two youngsters baffled and smitten by the first rush of young love, and it’s as intoxicating to us as it is to them. Brilliant.

The rest of the cast is largely excellent as well. Robert Hunt, as Javert, fills the auditorium with each song he gets, although I wasn’t a fan of his movement (I’m partial to a more ramrod-straight Javert, inflexible in posture as he is in theology – I was ruined forever by seeing Anthony Perkins in the movie when I was young). Edward Watts’ Enjolras is as beefy in body as in voice, and you never doubt how he could have convinced those around him to follow him to their graves – his masculine presence is palpable and charismatic. Jenny Fellner as Eponine was my wife’s favorite, and indeed does a great job of making Fantine spunky enough to make you fall in love with her, but vulnerable enough to make you want to protect her. There were two performances that disappointed me, however. Laurent Giroux’s Thenardier was strangely muffled in a part that lends itself well to clamorous vigor (it’s possible he was just off that night; his comic timing was excellent despite the lack of energy). And Nikki Renee Daniels made a puzzling choice, turning Fantine from the noblehearted, quietly despairing woman whose choices show her strength of will and character, into a spunky, feisty firebrand kicking at the pricks of her fate. It was worth trying, but it didn’t work for me; I missed the softly tragic Fantine. Daniels certainly has the singing chops for the role, though, and I’m sure I’d enjoy her in another show (Kiss Me Kate comes to mind as a great fit).

Mackintosh is evaluating this new incarnation of the show and eyeing a possible Broadway re-launch. Here’s hoping that re-launch happens, and soon. In the meantime, if you can catch one of the shows this weekend (the run ends Sunday night), it’s not an experience you’ll soon forget. Highly recommended.

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10 Comments »

  1. I saw Les Mis after seeing many other Broadway shows, one of the perks of growing up only 45 miles outside of New York, and it instantly became one of my favorites. The drama, the music, the set, everything was just perfect in my mind. Your review helped me relive that first performance, thank you for doing a masterful job of bringing the show to life! I will now go through my “musicals” playlist on my iPod and listen to One Day More.

    PS have you seen the Obama version? I was moved to tears, you think I’m kidding…

    Comment by Stephanie — September 27, 2008 @ 5:58 am | Reply

  2. I guess I gotta get out and see the play. Glad Paste is foraying into the movies as well as the music and now even plays.

    Comment by mike gallagher — September 27, 2008 @ 6:18 am | Reply

  3. Les Mis has always been my favorite. Glad to hear the changes are mostly for the better.

    Comment by Josh Jackson — September 27, 2008 @ 7:04 am | Reply

  4. Les Miserables is my favorite musical. I had my doubts about the elimination of the turntable, but I am glad to read that the show is not adversely affected.

    Fantine being played as spunky sounds completely bizarre. I cannot imagine “I Dreamed a Dream” done with spunk instead of resignation.

    As Eponine’s biggest fan, I too have always found the Marius/Cosette romance to be the weakest part of the show. A version of the romance that I might actually care about sound intriguing.

    I am sorry I am going to miss it this time around.

    Comment by Monty Parnasse — September 27, 2008 @ 8:53 am | Reply

  5. Dunaway is right! It’s not Oklahoma, but it deals with enduring themes and deals with them well. We can relate to the ideas as much as the French from 100 years ago could. I’ll have to try to get down there and see it.

    Comment by Derek Owens — September 27, 2008 @ 10:40 am | Reply

  6. An excellent article Michael, thank you! I hope the tour finds its way to Chicago!

    Comment by Earl Pingel — September 28, 2008 @ 2:44 pm | Reply

  7. Love it!!

    Comment by Jessica — September 29, 2008 @ 11:19 am | Reply

  8. Glad to hear that you enjoyed the changes-I was a bit worried about them. I will have to get to the Fox Theatre before it leaves ATL!!

    Comment by Kira — September 29, 2008 @ 1:16 pm | Reply

  9. Thanks. Gives some ideas for what to see next.

    AJ

    Comment by Abdulkareem Jama — September 30, 2008 @ 12:50 am | Reply

  10. Nicely done! I’m going to have to check you regularly, brother!

    Comment by Michael Emerson — October 1, 2008 @ 2:01 am | Reply


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