BWW Reviews: PMT Brings Gritty Edge to LES MISERABLES at the Byham Theatre
I am almost certain that anyone reading this site is fairly familiar with Les Miserables by now. Honestly, it's hard to avoid. Everyone even tangentially related to the world of theatre or entertainment knows at least one song, whether it's "Castle On A Cloud," "One Day More," "I Dreamed A Dream," or (if you're a Seinfeld fan) "Master of the House." We've seen the movie, we've seen parodies of the movie, we've seen South Park endlessly reference and satirize the musical from its earliest days on the air. We've laughed about the whole Russell Crowe debacle and endlesslyd debated the merits of Hugh Jackman. Les Mis- a show so famous it gets its own abbreviated title that people ARE ACTUALLY FAMILIAR WITH- is a classic. It's also old hat.
Ken Gargaro, director of the PMT staging of Les Miserables, is an old hand with classic shows and rock operas, having directed Jesus Christ Superstar numerous times in his signature epic fashion. Unafraid to tinker with the standard perceptions of what a show like Les Mis is, his staging steps back from the broad, one-dimensional characterizations, operatic excesses and set pieces (literal and metaphorical) that have exemplified the show over the past three decades. His trims make the famously overstuffed show run at just about two and a half hours- the standard run time for a non-mega musical. Purists may balk, but the show is leaner, meaner and better paced under his direction.
In casting his production, Gargaro has intentionally chosen performers with rock and pop voices, rather than the standard theatrical, or, more recently, operatic voices associated with the property. He has also jettisoned the traditional British accents, all too ubiquitous in productions of anything not set in the United States. This raw sound and lack of pretension illuminates the rock power ballad structures hidden beneath many of the show's arias. Peter Matthew Smith, in the role of convict turned Christ figure Jean Valjean, stands out for his ability to navigate the role's complex vocal character, moving between the hard rock influence of songs like "Valjean's Soliloquy" and "Confrontation" and the gentle balladry of "Bring Him Home." In this song, the character's eleven o'clock number, Smith truly comes into his own alongside Gargaro's concept. While traditionally performed as a quasi-operatic aria nearly entirely in falsetto, Smith navigates the song gently but passionately through the breadth of his voice, opening into full chest voice before sliding into a powerful and wide vocal mix.
As Valjean's dogged rival, the obsessive police inspector Javert, Brady Patsy sings well and acts serviceably, but is saddled with the less showy role and an underwritten character. (For all the flaws in Russell Crowe's singing in the film, he was helped along by an expanded role and additional recitative that fleshed out the character and his conflicted personality better.) Emily Lynne Miller, playing Fantine, has the smallest lead role but makes a fantastic impression. Like Smith, she brings a pop-rock intensity to a role that, especially post-Susan Boyle, is all too often approached as a minor opera diva. As soon as regional rights to Wicked are released, you can bet Smith will be defying gravity. Husband and wife team David and Katie Toole, as young lovers Marius and Cosette, have a genuine natural chemistry and sing and act their roles quite well, though Katie Toole is given the unenviable task of singing Cosette without making it sound too traditionally operatic. Cosette's vocal material, often soaring into the rafters, is one of the few roles in the show written undeniably for a classical voice.
Undeniably stealing the show, however, is Pittsburgh's local legend, Tim Hartman, as the conniving Thenardier. With his nearly seven-foot frame towering over the rest of the cast, Hartman greatly resembles his fellow actor/illustrator/children's entertainer John Lithgow, and they both share a knack for scenery-chewing villainous performances. It is clear that Gargaro has read the book, as he directs Hartman's Thenardier not as the drunken, bumbling, Dickensian cockney idiot so common to the show, but as a malevolently anarchic schemer and master of disguise. Victoria English, on the other hand, plays a much more conventional Madame Thenardier, playing up the shrewish and grotesque elements of the character. Her absurdity combined with Hartman's self-satisfied evil makes their performance of "Beggars at the Feast," in which they symbolically beat the tar out of the upper class of Paris post-uprising, darker than usual.
One caveat to the mostly superb cast is the thrilling vocal performance of Carnegie Mellon student Donovan Smith as revolutionary student Enjolras. Having sung opera across Europe, Smith is a master of his vocal craft, and his powerful, rich baritone is beautiful to hear. Unfortunately, in a production consciously styled away from opera, his vocal presence is jarring and out of place. In a traditionally-styled production, Smith would have a good chance of walking away with the show, but in a cast like this, he merely seems to be in a different show than everyone else. His fellow revolutionaries fare better: J. Alex Noble brings welcome touches of slapstick and buffoonery to Grantaire in Act 1 to even out his morose state in Act 2; and Logan Williams's naive Joly is a fantastic contrast to his sinister, predatory dandy Batambois in Act 1. Victoria Buchtan, as the street urchin turned wannabe revolutionary Eponine, has a pleasant voice on the legendary heartbreak ballad "On My Own," but wisely does not oversing "A Little Fall of Rain" in her character's final moments onstage.
Gargaro's staging is admirably faithful to the original novel. Characters such as Valjean's early victim, Petit-Gervais, appear in passing, and the Bishop of Digne appears in the finale alongside Fantine and Eponine, echoing his ghostly appearance in the novel (and, more recently, in the film). This reverence makes the few cuts and artistic changes to the show more surprising. In one major change, the incident of the runaway cart, in which Valjean displays his superhuman strength and nearly gives himself away, has been trimmed, leaving Valjean's decision to reveal his true identity and save an innocent man more a matter of chance. To one who has not seen Les Mis, I imagine that this omission is seamless. The other change, which appears in Act 2 and which I will not spoil, deviates from one of the story's most iconic moments. While some purists may consider it sacrelige, I found the change economical, cleverly staged and truly tense.
After the movie, the 25th anniversary concert, and countless regional and school productions, many audiences may consider themselves exhausted with Les Miserables. To this, I say, give it one more chance. Old fans may find something new, and those who never appreciated the piece before may like it better in this stripped-down style. If nothing else, it may inspire them to read the novel, a long and grueling but truly worthwhile journey I would recommend to anyone. The message of Victor Hugo's novel, and of the famous musical, is timeless: anyone can change, forgiveness heals both the accused and the accuser, and "to love another person is to see the face of God."