Review: 'Les Misérables' at Casa Manana

 Daniel Solon

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.

Michael Hunsaker, Mary Michael Patterson and Stephanie Umoh. Photo Credit: Samuel Rushe

Michael Hunsaker, Mary Michael Patterson and Stephanie Umoh. Photo Credit: Samuel Rushe

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.
 

LES MISERABLES

Casa Mañana
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.

Review: Les Miserables: A Musical Celebration at Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Anthony J. Piccione

When thinking about what the greatest Broadway musicals over the past half-century are, Les Miserables is usually at or near the top of everyone’s list. Since it first premiered in the 1980s, it has received near universally acclaim, been produced again and again by theatres across the world, been adapted into an Oscar-nominated feature film, and continues to be among the most beloved musicals among theatergoers worldwide. So when it was announced that Connecticut Repertory Theatre would be producing the show as part of their Nutmeg Summer Series, the expectations were understandably high. They did not disappoint.

The show is presented in the form of a staged concert production, meaning that the focus is on the music and the actors, rather than the more technical aspects that come with a full-scale production. However, this is easily forgotten over the course of the production, as the incredible acting and voices of the cast take us into the world of the show with their suburb talents. In terms of the direction and the performances– as well as the reactions they invoke from audiences – the level of quality is near that of any show you could see on Broadway, and just by looking at the wide range of talented individuals in the production, it’s not hard to see why.

L to R: David Harris (Jean Valjean) and Terrence Mann (Inspector Javert) in LES MISÉRABLES: A Musical Celebration onstage at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre from May 28 through June 7, 2015.  Tickets and information at crt.uconn.edu or 860-486-2113.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

L to R: David Harris (Jean Valjean) and Terrence Mann (Inspector Javert) in LES MISÉRABLES: A Musical Celebration onstage at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre from May 28 through June 7, 2015.  Tickets and information at crt.uconn.edu or 860-486-2113.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

The show is directed by none other than Broadway legend Terrance Mann, the three-time Tony nominee who appeared in the original 1987 Broadway production of Les Miserables as the villainous Inspector Javert. His experience shows in the direction just as much as it does in his acting. While the production is not heavy of blocking or choreography, with the lead actors primarily acting and singing into a set of four microphones, the moments where they are included are blocked down to perfection, giving the show the same feel of an epic musical spectacle as the original Broadway production.

The biggest highlight of the night is, by far, the level and dramatic and musical talent in the cast that make this show as enjoyable as it is. Reprising his role of Inspector Javert, Mann shows that he’s still just as much the gifted actor that he was three decades ago. His performance in this production was every bit as exhilarating as it was when he played the role for the first time. David Harris – known in Australia as one of the most gifted actors in the country –does an equally impressive job in the role of the valiant Jean Valjean. His magnificent voice plays a big role in helping to make this production soar to the musical heights that it does.

Among the other lead characters, Alex Zeto does an excellent job portraying the role of Fantine, and her performance of I Dreamed a Dream proves to be a poignant highlight of the show. Chandler Lovelle and Joe Callahan both do a fine job in their respective roles of Cosette and Marius. Will Bryant does a superb job in the role of Enjorlas, while Philip Hoffman and Liz Larsen provide a nice dose of comic-relief with their portrayals of Thenardier and Madam Thenardier. Aidan and Dermot McMillan do a fine job as they take turns playing the role of young Gavroche, while Ariana DeBose as Eponine delivers a very touching performance of On My Own. All the lead actors are backed up by an equally strong and talented ensemble that helps give the show much of the same feeling of excitement that the Broadway production had.

While the acting, singing and direction prove to be the highlights of the show, there are some visual and technical elements of the show worth noting that make the show a better experience. While the set takes a minimalistic approach, due to the format of the production, this becomes a very minor aspect of the show as the audience becomes completely immersed in the show’s actors. This is largely thanks to the spectacular use of lighting in the show, which helps set the tone of various scenes and also keeps the focus on the gifted cast of actors. The production also makes good use of projections, as a means of providing both a visual backdrop for each scene, as well as a subtitle that lets the audience know at various points where the characters are in the story at that moment. Overall, these prove to be creative and effective ways of enhancing the production and making the most of the concert-style format that is used.

LES MISÉRABLES: A Musical Celebration directed by Terrence Mann onstage at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre from May 28 through June 7, 2015.  Tickets and information at crt.uconn.edu or 860-486-2113.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

LES MISÉRABLES: A Musical Celebration directed by Terrence Mann onstage at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre from May 28 through June 7, 2015.  Tickets and information at crt.uconn.edu or 860-486-2113.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Overall, this production provided just as much of the same thrills, laughs and tears to audience members as one could typically expect from a show like Les Miserables. With an outstanding level of talent involved, Connecticut Repertory Theatre is able to do what is not an easy task: To do a concert-style performance of one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time, and make it just as much of a worthwhile experience for the audience as a full-scale production would. For anyone who enjoys great theatre and great music, this event is something that they are certain to enjoy and is not to be missed.

Les Miserables: A Musical Celebration runs at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre from May 28th to June 7th. For more information, please visit www.crt.uconn.edu. 

Admirable Regional Production of LES MISERABLES Storms into MTW

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. 

Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre 

Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre 

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.

Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre 

Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre 

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

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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.