Michael L. Quintos
If by chance you happen to make travel plans in the next few weeks for New York City to see a Broadway show, one of the available options to see is the recent, much-lauded (and reportedly much re-worked) 2014 Broadway revival of the epic Claude-Michel Schönberg / Alain Boublil musical LES MISÉRABLES, that unabashedly grandiose, all-singing, all-emoting stage adaptation of Victor Hugo's massive novel set in 19th Century France.
But if your plans are a tad more local—say, Southern California, perhaps—then your best bet is to catch Musical Theatre West's rather admirable regional production of the musical, which continues its limited run at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach through April 26, 2015. This highly-commendable local production is directed and choreographed by DJ Salisbury and features a superb-sounding 30-person cast, an impressive arsenal of lighting, set, and costume designs, and strikingly lush musical accompaniment from a 16-piece live orchestra conducted by musical director Andrew Bryan.
I think it's safe to say that LES MISÉRABLES is arguably one of the most popularly-liked stage musicals ever, and there's little doubt that MTW's high-caliber presentation will genuinely please audiences familiar with the epic drama and gorgeous songs that have become synonymous with the show. But as more and more regional theaters are able to acquire the theatrical rights to produce their own locally-brewed versions of this musical, it's certainly becoming more intriguing to discover what differentiates each production from the other.
Lately, it seems finding just the right sound mix has been a, well... challenge for lots of otherwise amazing regional productions staging their own epic-sized local revivals of various shows. While live theater, sure, has proven time and again to be quite unpredictable, there are certain things, I would hope, that can be tweaked and improved.
I must say, right off the bat, this massive production of LES MIS—more than anything else—sounds absolutely exquisite from start to finish. What a sigh of relief it is to hear how wonderful this show sounds (and is supposed to sound), a rather important aspect considering how reliant this sung-through musical is on how its audiences hear every bellowing outburst, every anguished plea, and every emotionally-sung declaration.
During its opening night performance, this fine LES MIS beautifully combines its powerful lead and ensemble vocals with its rousing orchestra in a perfect aural mix, automatically elevating the production to a high plain. From the quiet ballads to its hard-charging anthems, the ear candy produced by this exceptional collective had me floating in euphoria.
Do you hear the people sing? Hell yes!
Leading the charge is Michael Hunsaker, whose portrait of downtrodden ex-convict Jean Valjean—the show's tormented spiritual center—is quite praiseworthy. Though some of his high notes at the top of the show may jolt and surprise some, he sounds simply magnificent during his gripping rendition of "Bring Him Home," reducing many to tears. Opposite him, Broadway vet and frequent MTW fixture Davis Gaines provides powerful vocal and acting work as Valjean's obsessive pursuer and nemesis, Inspector Javert. His performance of "Stars" is certainly one of the show's many musical highlights and proves once again what an asset he continues to be for So. Cal. theater.
Also worth mentioning are cast standouts Cassandra Murphy, reprising the role of the ill-fated Fantine she so beautifully portrayed at La Mirada's epic production last year (her "I Dreamed A Dream" is heavenly); Emily Martin, whose gorgeous vocals on the much-anticipated "On My Own" as the doomed Éponine is a memorable highlight; Steve Czarnecki as the intense leader of the student uprising Enjolras; Devin Archer as faithful student and Éponine's best friend/crush Marius; and, finally, Madison Claire Parks as the older Cosette, who as Marius' future paramour sings with a pristine, angelic soprano voice that is just so enchanting.
And let's not forget... providing some welcome, side-splitting relief from all the miserable are the hilarious duo of Norman Large and Ruth Williamson, who play the devious innkeepers/grifters the Thénardiers. Both accomplished Broadway vets have arrived at their roles having played them in previous productions—Large, who did the role as the first replacement in the original Broadway company, and Williamson, who took on the same showy role for the star-studded Hollywood Bowl production.
But, honestly, my most favorite parts of this production is whenever the ensemble sings together. Listening to their harmonies and collective musical eruptions are reasons enough to experience this MTW revival for yourself. From the chorus at the top of the show to their battlecry of revolution in "One Day More," this company delivers with power and palpable passion that makes the entire lengthy show enjoyable to watch.
Overall, MTW's production of LES MIS is indeed a Broadway-caliber, first-rate iteration, even though there are times when the show's forward ebb and flow feels oddly choppy—as if entire chunks of the show were spliced off revealing a few visible seams here and there. It's a minor, albeit slightly jarring flaw in an otherwise exemplary undertaking.
But, really, once you hear these people sing... this production proves just too enthralling to resist.
Review originally published on BroadwayWorld. Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's production of LES MISÉRABLES continue through Sunday, April 26, 2015 and are scheduled Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., and Sunday evening at 7 p.m. DUE TO OVERWHELMING DEMAND, A SECOND PERFORMANCE HAS BEEN ADDED FOR SUNDAY, APRIL 26 at 7PM. Musical Theatre West performs at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA.
For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit MTW online at www.musical.org.