Yesterday's matinee performance of Les Mis
at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa marked my sixteenth live experience of the musical. While I don’t think I’d rank it among the best performances I’ve seen, I still enjoyed it very much and am very happy to have seen it. My seat was further back than the one I had last year at the Ahmanson, so I couldn’t see the actors’ facial expressions as clearly as I would have liked, but it takes more than that to keep me from enjoying my favorite musical.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I like the tour production. True, it’s flawed, and true, it can’t equal the original, but I like it. I’ve been seduced by those moody, impressionistic images of rooftops, ship rigging, Parisian streets, etc based on Hugo’s art, that convey each location amid the atmospheric shadowy lighting. It’s a different visual world than the original production, but one with its own somber beauty that equally suits the spirit of the story.
True, the “cinematic” movement of the projections is sometimes hokey (though I actually liked Valjean’s sewer journey better this time than I did at the Ahmanson), the new costumes are “community theatre”-esque compared to Adrienne Neofitou’s peerless originals (my least favorite being Thénardier’s cartoonish wedding getup), and the staging lacks the sheer intelligence and poetry of Nunn and Caird’s (why, oh why, are there no empty chairs or empty tables onstage as Marius sings about them?), But still, it’s a solid production with its own excellent qualities. The brutally realistic Final Battle, with its chaos enhanced by blurred projections and haphazard flashes of light, and the finale in which Valjean’s spirit lingers lovingly over Marius and Cosette before joining the other spirits and being greeted by the Bishop, arguably rival the original staging in effectiveness. At any rate, Hugo’s story compelled me just like it always does.
I noticed a few visual differences between this performance and last year’s, small yet worth mentioning:
*Valjean’s head is now shorn in the Prologue. The movie isn’t even out yet, but already Hugh Jackman’s look is being copied onstage!
*Some of the other wigs have been changed or eliminated too, probably due to the new actors’ complexions. Cosette is once again a brunette, albeit a very light one, and Enjolras has likewise lost his flowing blond locks (though whether or not this was just because he was an understudy I don’t know).
*Some of the sillier bits of staging from last year have been cut. Valjean and Javert no longer play tug-of-war with the chain during “Confrontation” (though Valjean still throttles Javert with it, argh), Mme. Thénardier no longer tries to seduce Valjean during the Waltz of Treachery (though she does briefly try her girlish charms on Marius at the wedding), and Éponine’s “badass” hurling of Montparnasse to the ground is gone, too.
The orchestrations I’m still no expert on. I just don’t have the ear for them that certain other people do.
I just remember thinking, “oh, that’s good,” “that’s fine,” or “no, I don’t like that!” at various points. One thing I’m sure of, though, is that the tempos felt absolutely perfect. Which surprised me, because I do consider the UK tour recording too fast. Either they’ve slowed the orchestra down for the US, or I was too absorbed in the drama to notice the speed.
Now, on to the cast…Peter Lockyer (Jean Valjean):
The main reason I bought my ticket was to see this man. When I first became a Les Mis fan he was playing Marius on Broadway, and though I never got to see him, I read rave reviews of his performance. So you can imagine my curiosity about his Valjean. While I probably wouldn’t rank him among the greatest Valjeans, he didn’t disappoint either. His voice was bright, clear and beautiful, if sometimes a bit lacking in power (e.g. on “Two-four-six-o-oooooone!”), and his acting was passionate and engaging. He didn’t make the same vivid, unique impression on me that J. Mark McVey did last year, but in all fairness, that might not have been his fault: if my seat had been closer, I’m sure I could have seen more subtle characterization details from him. But still, he made me believe in Valjean. I was happy to see that McVey’s way of interacting with Javert (generally calm and civil, but with occasional outbursts of temper), which I so loved last year, has carried over into Peter’s portrayal, and his confession to Marius, so easy to play as a throwaway scene, made me want to hold him and comfort him. All in all, a fine Valjean, whom I hope to eventually see again.Andrew Varela (Javert):
A controversial Javert, I know, but I liked him last year and I liked him again this time. His voice may be slightly tenorish for the role, but it’s a strong, handsome, dignified voice nonetheless – during a few speak-singing passages his sharp, stately articulation even reminded me of Philip Quast. And as at the Ahmanson, he presented a clear, interesting character arc that I’ve never seen from any other Javert. At the beginning he was a rigid, collected, calmly stern officer, but then, over the course of “The Runaway Cart,” “Who Am I?” and “Confrontation,” he started to break. His repeated failure to capture Valjean, and particularly his frightening, humiliating defeat at Valjean’s hands in the hospital, gradually unleashed an obsessive vendetta. As I remembered from last year, his “Stars” was no staunch statement of belief, but a fairly desperate attempt to assure himself that he would win because his was “the way of the Lord.” Throughout the rest of the action he displayed increasing uncontrollable rage, and in the end, it was no surprise that his unstable psyche imploded in the face of Valjean’s mercy.
This characterization isn’t Hugo’s Javert, nor is it necessarily ideal for the musical: such a neurotic take on “Stars” results in an awfully choppy rendition of the beautiful melody. But Andrew conveyed it vividly and believably, and for that I have to applaud him – just like the audience applauded his beautifully frantic, enraged, broken suicide soliloquy. I wouldn’t call him the definitive Javert, but without a doubt he’s a compelling one.Cornelia Luna (u/s Fantine):
A lovely, passionate Fantine with a beautiful, powerhouse voice. I’ll admit, the role’s range seemed to lie a bit low for her, but still, it was thrilling to hear such a rich, almost gospel singer-like tone ringing out from her delicate figure. Dramatically she was near-perfect as well: her performance testified to her previous, 3rd National Tour experience with the role. At the beginning she reminded me of Betsy Morgan, very quiet, ladylike and gentle (maybe a little too much – I would have liked to see a fiercer effort to get the letter back from the Factory Girl, though I suppose freezing in horror is a valid emotional response too). But she gained a definite edge after becoming a prostitute that Betsy didn’t have, singing the “Come on, Captain…” passage with an affected seductiveness that quickly turned to vicious rage, and later screaming hysterically at Bamatabois. Her death was strong as well, with beautiful fragility and vivid fear and tears as the end drew near. The audience loved her and understandably so.Timothy Gulan (Thénardier):
A first-rate Thénardier in every way. He was appropriately funny, yet never hammy (even if some of his stage business was), and fully conveyed the character’s sinister side. In “Dog Eats Dog” he nearly scared me to death with his ferocious “…CAUSE HE’S DEEEEAAAAD!” and his “…shines doooowwwwn!” was an animal-like snarl of rage. A “deep furnace of hate” indeed!Shawna M. Hamic (Mme. Thénardier):
Once again, she was a classic, larger-than-life, nasty yet hilarious Mme. T. Her unladylike manners at the wedding were a particular sight to see. She seemed to henpeck her husband this time around, while I remember their partnership last year as more equal. I suppose it’s inevitable that she have different chemistry with Timothy Gulan than she had with Michael Kostroff. Predictably and rightfully, the audience adored them.Max Quinlan (Marius):
A good, solid, traditional Marius. He had the classic boyish good looks and a bright, youthful voice, lighter than Justin Scott Brown’s last year, but fully capable of rich beauty for “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” His acting was generally spot-on, too. He was completely believable as an adorable, exuberant lovesick puppy whom warfare and loss transform from a boy to a man. Anti-Eppyboppers will also be glad to know that he showed ‘Ponine a bit less affection than Justin did. He still sobbed over her dead body, though, and mourned over her cap for quite a while afterwards. Those touches are obviously direction, whether Hugophiles like them or not. His “Empty Chairs” was also less angry than Justin’s, but still deeply felt. All in all, his performance was excellent.John Brink (u/s Enjolras):
His lack of experience with the role was visible, but still, he gave a good performance. He sang with a clear, solid voice, though his high notes were underpowered, and came across as a good leader, commanding yet kind, though by no means a “fearsome cherubim” or “marble lover of liberty.” But to his credit, in the Final Battle he shouted out a truly magnificent “…until the earth IS FREEEEEE!” worthy of Anthony Warlow. For that alone I liked him.Chasten Harmon (Éponine):
As at the Ahmanson, a strong performance. Her voice was as rich and warm as ever, though still a little R&B-ish. This time I particularly noticed the beauty of her soft singing, which was apparent during “A Heart Full of Love” and especially “A Little Fall of Rain.” Meanwhile, her acting was still appropriately scrappy and emotional. I still don’t understand Quique’s complaint about her trying too hard to be “creepy.” Both here and in LA, all I saw was a street rat: broken, brash and bitter, but not creepy. Maybe if I saw her from a closer seat, I might see the creepiness. But one thing I know for sure was that her death was perfect. Her pain was clear but not overplayed in the least (maybe she read your comments, Quique) and she sang with exquisite tenderness and fragility. As far as I’m concerned, she filled the role well.Lauren Wiley (Cosette):
I didn’t like her quite as well as I liked Jenny Latimer, but still she was good. I had mixed feeling about her voice; it had a bit of a “Jodi Benson on helium” quality. But in general her singing was sweet and pretty, and she was convincing both as a bubbly, romantic young girl and as a devoted daughter to Valjean (though the staging still emphasizes their conflicting priorities more than their affection). While I doubt she converted any Eppyboppers into Cosette-lovers, she kept my fondness for the character alive and well.Erin Clearlock (Young Cosette):
An endearing little girl. Her voice was fairly squeaky and her huge, heaving sobs in the Well Scene (in the new staging she spills her bucket of water and is crying over it when Valjean finds her) were slightly fake, but otherwise she was believable and sweet.Marcus d’Angelo (Gavroche):
The first Gavroche I’ve ever seen who was smaller than Young Cosette. I don’t know his age, but my guess is six or seven. He was incredibly tiny and squeaky-voiced, and though he certainly had spunk, his acting wasn’t very polished. He’ll probably be better Gavroche material in about four years, if by any chance the tour lasts that long.John Rapson (u/s Grantaire):
I was disappointed not to see Joseph Spieldenner again, since I was curious whether he’d improved in the role or not. But John did an excellent job and I’m now happy to have seen him. He was vivid both as a boisterous, hammy “class clown” and as a cynical drunken sad-sack, and his friendship with Marius and vague devotion to Enjolras were convincing. Unfortunately the staging still has him blame Enjolras for everything at the barricade, glaring at him after Éponine’s death and directing the “Drink With Me” solo at him an angry, accusing (yet tearful) way, But those were clearly the directors’ choices, not his.
He also handled the staging’s emphasis on Grantaire’s friendship with Gavroche very well. When the boy was killed he let out possibly the most agonized scream of “NOOOOOOOOO!” I’ve ever heard. (Yes, I know that Grantaire’s “Noooooo!” in this production is controversial, but guess what: I like it. In the original staging, where we see Gavroche die, it would probably have been overkill, but since the death is offstage in this version, I think it works perfectly well.) Once again, when they all reappeared as spirits, my first emotional response was happiness that Grantaire and Gavroche were together again. A first-rate characterization.
I think I’d give this performance a 6 ½ or 7 out of 10. It never equaled the five greatest Les Mis performances I’ve seen (my one visit to the London production, the 3NT’s 2004 LA stop, and the three performances I saw on Broadway), but I still enjoyed it wholeheartedly. I’ve never yet seen a professional performance of Les Mis that I haven’t liked. I might even like to see this same cast again when the tour comes to Thousand Oaks this fall, if I can get a good seat. Whatever flaws there are in the production or the cast, this tour is still Les Mis and still compelling, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has the chance to see it.
(PS. Quique, if anything I’ve written here inspires you, please post one of your rants. I love your insights about what makes the original production so magnificent.