November 11, 2006

Les Mis

When I first posted that I was going to be working on Les Mis several weeks back, one of my friends commented that I should ask for a raise for sitting through the 3 hour opus. Another commented that he always wanted to play the role of Thernardier. And one other was surprised that they were bringing back that Old Chestnut (great expression by the way).

Before my week at the Broadhurst, I'd never seen the musical or listened to the music. I know the book the show is based on and I'm currently re-reading the classic by Victor Hugo. But the musical - well, I never got to work on it during it's original Broadway run and could never afford to see it. Basically, going into the Broadhurst, I was skeptical. I'll be honest. I rarely like musicals that are very, very, very commercial with broad tourist appeal.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that I love this musical. Now, I know the reviewer from the NY Times thought this production was like a story told too many times by the same story teller; that the emotional message had been diluted after being removed so many generations from the original. But for someone that's never before seen a production of Les Mis, it was exciting and refreshing, moving to the point where I cried, and an almost perfect theatrical experience. During the week, I'd only watched the show in bits and pieces but there was one day where I watched the show all the way through. And by the end, I was wrecked; tears streaming down my face; exhausted from the impact of an emotional story very well told.

The casting is great. I'll start with Thernadier because a friend of mine commented that he would want to play that character if he were part of the show. He's the bon vivant who runs the inn where FANTINE has left her daughter for good keeping. The number MASTER OF THE HOUSE is about him. He's an opportunist that represents the dark, disenfranchised people of the Paris slum of St. Michel. And he's played with great aplomb by the phenominally talented Gary Beach. He's just a funny guy and offers a clownish interpretation of this famous number from ACT I. But his MASTER OF THE HOUSE isn't just a foppish innkeeper enslaving Cossette. He's also a scavenger and a thief. He brings great depth to his performance.

The woman who plays his wife, the Thernardiesse as she's referred to in the book, is big and brassy and scary and angry and funny. Jenny Galloway gives respect to the character that she plays with the right balance of humor and gravitas. She's so enjoyable to watch I found myself wishing that her part was even greater than it was.

Jean Valjean is played by Alexander Gemignani. His performance alone is worth the price of admission. He displays a great vocal range and is masterful when combining the art of acting with the art of singing. The last time I saw him on Broadway he was starring in the recent revival of Sweeney Todd as The Beadle. He was wonderful in that too but until I saw him in LES MIS, I had no idea how strong a performer he is. When he sings he commands your attention utterly. You can't look away. And when he is on stage with someone else, he works well not to step on the other person's toes. Most notably, in his confrontation in the duet with Javert he passes the lead vocal back and forth as easily as throwing a ball. And on top of that, he looks like Jean Valjean as he is described in the book. One can almost say that he is the physical manifestation of Hugo's famous protagonist.

Chief Inspector Javert is played by Norm Lewis. He is in my opinion the strongest singer in the show. What a set a pipes on him. His voice is remarkable and listening to him was a almost a religious experience. His voice is loud and strong and you can tell he's been training for a long time. He's had the kind of classical training that lends itself to opera, musical theater or R&B. What an absolute delight. Okay. His performance alone is also worth the price of admission and he's just as comfortable sharing that duet with Alexander Gemignani as vice versa.

With regard to the children in the show, they are all fairly interchangeable and no one really stood out to me as being more or less talented than anyone else. The actors playing Fantine, Marius and Cosette are adequate but that's okay. This is the kind of show where the parts are strong enough not to rely on the strength of the performers and can carry adequacy. I'm not saying that they aren't any good - it's just that compared to the performances of the previously written about actors, they're just adequate.

I will dedicate this last part of my entry to EPONINE. The actress that plays the teenage EPONINE was last seen in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Celia Keenan-Bolger is entirely believable as the scrappy tomboy on the verge of discovering her womanhood. She broke my heart when she sang ON MY OWN and then A LITTLE FALL OF RAIN at the beginning of ACT II. Eponine is possibly the most tragic character in literature. In the book, she is starving, neglected and all her clothes are threadbare. In the play, she is the same.

If you're the kind of theater goer that has seen Les Miserables umpteen times then don't see this show, because like the NY Time reviewer you won't be able to watch this show without comparing it to the original and you probably won't like it. But if you're like me, and you never got to see it, then I strongly, strongly recommend that you see this show.

You'll enjoy the experience.

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