Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Alan Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s international juggernaut Les Miserables storms onto Casa Manana’s mainstage, opening their 2015-2016 Broadway series. The 1980’s mega musical, based on the 1860’s mega novel by Victor Hugo, romanticizes French turmoil and feudal suffering while centering on a quashed student-led insurgence following the death of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque.
As the world’s longest running musical, Les Miserables (or Les Mis as mega fans call it) has a permanent home in London’s West End and has returned to the Broadway stage after numerous national tours and regional productions. Last year, Dallas Theatre Center presented a contemporary reinterpretation by Liesl Tommy featuring automatic weapons and dreadlocks - Casa’s production is decidedly more in line with the safer, musket and wig historical piece that audiences have come to cherish.
And this is a production to cherish. Packed with extraordinary vocal and acting talent, this Les Miserables fits perfectly on Casa’s thrust stage. Adam Koch’s versatile set design relies on two giant rolling walls with drawbridges, passageways and crannies that the cast adroitly cross over, climb on and emerge from. The second act brings us the appearance of the barricade - a design spectacle that’s a favorite of audiences. Koch has kept with tradition, creating the effect of a haphazard pile of disused furniture, driftwood and spinning wheels. He’s then painted the mass in black, leaving the would-be revolutionaries’ red vests and white sleeves to pop against the darkness as they scramble up the pile with guns and flags.
Kudos here to lighting designer Samuel Rushen whose nuanced, dynamic design supports a sense of space as big as the emotions at hand. Bright shafts of brilliant color shoot across the space, landing onstage to define intimate playing areas. Attention to contrast was especially welcome, evoking the visual language of French painters who similarly sought to capture the scale of societal revolution while highlighting individual struggle. The war-like storming of the barricade was achieved by an impressive array of moveable, flood and strobe lighting. Clearly, Rushen knows how to the make the most of a formidable lighting grid.
Every good period drama deserves extravagant costumes, and Tammy Spencer has delivered in spades. Consider that this show demands outfitting street urchins, prostitutes, the working poor, soldiers, posh students and the considerably wealthy. The result is a rags to riches treat for the sartorially inclined. Les Mis poster girl Cosette gets the best of it, as she is consistently outfitted in stunning gowns. A wedding in the second act takes the cake as Cosette’s bridal gown sets a new standard for opulence as men in tuxedos and women in frilly dresses waltz around her.
At the heart of this show is its popular, bombastic score known for its pounding anthems and reflective lyrics. At the reviewed performance it was conducted ably by music director James Cunningham. His orchestra was in rare form, though I occasionally was too aware that his pit comprised of four keyboards and no violins. Synthesized instruments often succeed where their low-fi counterparts can’t (this musical was written in the ‘80s after all). Lise Engel’s cello provided a warm aural base, but the synthetic strings sounded strained at their top end, leaving unsupported vocal climaxes to powerhouse tunes like “Stars”, “Who Am I” and “I Dreamed a Dream”. I can only assume this is a cost cutting measure, but I will always champion the value of paying full orchestras to perform live theatre. Actors, musicians, and production crew are professional artists and employing them properly can only make for better art.
More than eight members of this cast boast Broadway credits. Before local unions cry foul, it’s important to note that former Casa Kid Mary Michael Patterson returns to this Equity house to play Cosette. Ms. Patterson makes a more than welcome turn with her gently powerful voice. Her upper range is sublime and I could easily imagine why Broadway tapped her for Christine in Phantom of the Opera. It’s a shame that the adult Cosette never really gets her own song, but in “A Heart Full of Love” Ms. Patterson’s clear tones could be heard to float above harmonies with ethereal grace.
Kirstin Tucker’s Eponine infuses the stage with the volition of a street savvy con-woman and the youthful longing of unrequited affection. Look no further than showstopper “On My Own” to get the full effect of Ms. Tucker’s brilliance. She masterfully delivers this stirring anthem for the love-lorn. With emotions running this high, it’s easy to understand why such an otherwise capable young woman is unable to win the object of her affections. She loves with true emotion, but wrestles with the intellectual reality that she will never fully know the intimacy she desires.
Indeed, Eponine has her work cut out for her, as Ian Patrick Gibb offers a charmingly befuddled Marius. From Gibb, we get the perfect young revolutionary tourist: full of passion, purpose and prospect, but unable to seal the deal due to gallant bashfulness. But as is the way with the best coming of age tales, the optimism with which he woos Cosette in “A Heart Full of Love” gives way to tragic reckoning as he mourns the dead in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”. This is a beautifully performed scene, again explicating the discrete pain that lives among communal tragedy.
Over the course of “Lovely Ladies”, Stephanie Umoh’s Fantine is subjected to every degradation and humiliation that the Parisian sewers have to offer a fallen woman. After all, she’s just lost her job and has a child to support. Ms. Umoh convincingly conveys the kinetic panic of a single mother’s struggle. Yes, she’s willing to sell her own body so that her child will know a better life. In “I Dreamed a Dream”, Fantine reminisces of the good times before love turned into desperation. Ms. Umoh gives us that emotional journey, and in doing so, she substantiates Fantine’s hyperbolic suffering, making her demise even more lamentable.
Daniel Rowan should be famous. His powerful voice and piercing eyes nearly inspired me to bound onto stage and join the revolution. As Enjolras, Rowan is charged with rallying the troops and keeping young hearts (and bodies) focused on the task at hand (nothing less than overturning tyranny). I never once doubted Rowan’s sincerity and I fully believed this charismatic revolutionary could hold his own at the barricade. Rowan was ablaze with drive and purpose as he led the students from “Red and Black” to “Do You Hear the People Sing”.
James Zannelli and Cheryl Allison were despicably delightful as the Thenardiers - Paris’ worst babysitters and innkeepers. These are tricky characters that must be simultaneously loathed as the thieves and child abusers they are, but also embraced as darkly functional clowns - exposing the rise of petty blackmail and opportunistic bourgeois Capitalism over moral integrity. “Master of the House” was a raucous joy rife with pickpocketing drunks, stealing from blind men and wonton philandering. Ms. Allison’s two-faced Madame Thenardier is wonderfully cringe worthy. Only more despicable is Zannelli’s Thenardier who, after the fall of the rebellion, combs the sewers in search of valuables in the pockets (and mouths) of the dead.
If anyone can bring order to this chaos, it’s meant to be David McDonald’s Javert. It’s important to remember that this police inspector was born inside a jail and has a somewhat unhealthy bias against inmates. McDonald manifests the stern severity of a man on a mission. He is an obelisk, calling for order amid chaos. When he sings, “I am Javert,” I believe him and that the mere mention of his name brings criminals into child’s pose. But what makes this character, and this performance, so powerful is the tension between Javert’s need to create order and his compassionate instincts. The struggle is real, and McDonald exposes the pain that comes with compromise from duality.
And then there’s Jean Valjean. There’s always Jean Valjean. There’s a lot of Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean is equal parts martyr, criminal, escapee, hero, industrialist, father, soldier and coward. It’s a lot to manage and Michael Hunsaker is up for the job. Unlike other characters who age over the course of Les Miserables, Valjean is deftly played by the same actor over three decades. Hunsaker’s Valjean begins the show as an impetuous, jaded convict who has been brutally punished for his good intentions. As the show closes and he drifts into death, he has aged considerably and gained the lessons of experience. Beyond the greying of his hair, he has come to know the value of love, connection and yes, the human spirit.
It’s a lot to achieve in one show. Tim Bennett’s confident direction and choreography shine through as this three hour epic never drags or yawns. Each new moment feels fresh and rich with dramatic intention. The show is forever moving, maintaining the signature cinematic pacing that made this sort of musical so successful in the ‘80s. Bennett hasn’t chosen to reinvent the wheel, but he has created an environment in which actors appear empowered and present. Special thanks is offered for a notable lack of insincere accents. It’s a small choice, but an important one, to allow actors to use their native inflections when creating a role. This is an international show and Bennett has offered us a strikingly talented, diverse cast that appropriately favors talent above all else.
3101 W Lancaster Ave.
Fort Worth, TX 76107
Runs through June 28th
Performances: Friday, June 19 at 8:00pm, Saturday, June 20 at 2pm and 8pm, Sunday, June 21 at 2pm and 7:30pm, Tuesday, June 23 at 7:30pm, Wednesday, June 24 at 7:30pm, Thursday, June 25 at 7:30pm, Friday, June 26 at 8pm, Saturday, June 27 at 2pm and 8pm, Sunday, June 28 at 2pm and 7:30pm
Tickets range from $41 - $91 and can be purchased by calling Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000 or by visiting www.casamana.org. Tickets are also available at the Casa Mañana Theatre box office, 3101 W. Lancaster Avenue in Fort Worth.