Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Les Miserables, PlayhouseSquare

(Andrew Varela as Javert)

Once again, the epic musical Les Miserables has landed at PlayhouseSquare, this time in a much-ballyhooed new production directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell. This 25th Anniversary tour of the Cameron Mackintosh blockbuster should be cause for rejoicing, but not so fast.

First of all, the story doesn’t change. Frenchman Jean Valjean, freed from the slammer for heisting a loaf of bread, decides to become a thief but is snatched from that life by the kindness of a bishop who gives him cover. Changing his name, Valjean becomes a wealthy business owner and mayor of a town.

After saving the prostitute Fantine from the streets, and watching her die in his care, he wrests the woman’s daughter Cosette from the clutches of two scummy innkeepers and raises her as his own. As time passes, Cosette falls in love with Marius, a leader in the June Rebellion, while Inspector Javert hunts down Valjean with an obsessive fervor.

Instead of the well-known rotating turntable, a mainstay of past productions, the new staging features projections of some of original author Victor Hugo’s paintings on a screen at the rear of the stage. This I know from the production’s souvenir program, since I didn’t see it in person.

From my perspective in a seat at the extreme left end of the second row, roughly 20% of the stage was blocked by a hefty light tower, one of two stationed at the corners of the proscenium. As a result, I saw nothing that happened far stage right and could only glimpse a sliver of the screen where the projections were shown.

Sadly, then, I cannot report on some of the more telling moments in Les Miz. I don’t know whether the young boy Gavroche dies on stage or off; I certainly didn’t see it happen. I didn’t see Valjean carry Marius through the sewers of Paris. And while I saw Inspector Javert jump from the bridge in his suicide scene, he then quickly disappeared behind the light tower. (I assume he died, like all the times before.)

Although denied the visual sweep of the show, I can say that many other scenes were fully visible, and all of it was easily heard. And that turns out to be a mixed blessing.

While the cast nails all the money notes—the quiet finishes of some songs and the boisterous full-chorus anthems—many songs are performed with less resonance and precision than one might expect.

As Fantine, Betsy Morgan struggles with the lovely “I Dreamed a Dream,” becoming a bit shrill at times. And Jenny Latimer, playing the grown-up Cosette, goes thin with some of her songs before nailing pitch perfect endings.

But beyond singing glitches, the company displays a bigger problem. I wouldn’t say the cast mailed it in, but it would be fair to say they copied us on a previous e-mail that they sent to someone else, hoping we wouldn’t notice.

When actors perform by relying on memory and technique, instead of creating their characters fresh every night, you get what was on the stage at the Palace opening night: Lots of big gestures and bravado without a real core inside. And that broad approach does no favors to a show that is already florid and melodramatic.

As Jean Valjean, Ron Sharpe (who has replaced the originally cast African-American actor Lawrence Clayton) has a fine set of pipes, but he never seems to engage fully with his character’s plight. Andrew Varela, as Valjean's tormentor Javert, hits all the marks vocally and burns with an intensity that would register more fully in a better ensemble performance. Together, they do not create the antipathy, the anti-chemistry, which must fuel the play’s trajectory.

In her solo "On My Own," Chasten Harmon as love-starved Eponine actually sniffles when she sings "I love him," helpfully cueing us to the fact that she's, um, sad. The comic duo of M. Thenardier (John Rapson) and his wife (Shawna M. Hamic) push their nasty innkeeper roles to the brink, coming across as more cartoonish than vile and threatening. And that, oddly enough, makes them less engaging in the context of the show.

One hopes that the touring assistant director will get the actors back on the ball, so that ensuing performances have the immediacy and depth this magnificent show deserves. And if you end up in one of the far outside seats near the stage, remember to buy the souvenir program. In those pages, it certainly appears to be a very handsome production.

Les Miserables

Through April 17 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1519 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

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