BWW Reviews: Epic 25th Anniversary Production of LES MISERABLES Shakes Up Costa Mesa
On the evening of June 13, about 50 minutes into watching a performance of the exquisite 25th Anniversary production of Cameron Mackintosh's LES MISÉRABLES at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, a relatively minor 4.1 earthquake reportedly shook surrounding areas here in Orange County. While such an occurrence is pretty much par for the course with living in Southern California, this one felt especially timely for those gathered inside taking in this beautifully-mounted show.
Perhaps, in a way, those of us (myself included) who may not have been aware that such light seismic activity was happening beneath us really did feel something—as many others tweeted from their seats did. It's possible, though, that we may have just confused the tremors for the deep rumble caused by the terrific orchestra barreling through the grandiose music of Boublil and Schönberg's much-beloved theatrical masterwork. Suffice it to say, it was hard to distract enthralled theatergoers from the mesmerizing showmanship of this revived national tour production (except maybe for a couple of annoyingly loud-talking, chips-munching [!], theater newbies sitting next to me). The long running musical will continue to wow audiences at the Center through June 24.
One of the most popular, highly-regarded stage musicals of all time, LES MISÉRABLES—enjoying some renewed buzz lately thanks to this gorgeously refreshed production, as well as the upcoming film adaptation arriving in theaters this Christmas—is, to put it simply, a moving, overtly theatrical epic. Everything about this Tony-winner for Best Musical feels massive—a big show with a big cast with big voices singing about big themes.
Based on Victor Hugo's novel—which was then adapted for the stage by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyricists Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and book writer Herbert Kretzmer—this mammoth stage musical, with all its heavy, serious overtones and seemingly high-brow, opera-like treatment, still manages to be populist entertainment, mostly because of its lovely, memorable songs and its conscious ability to sear its broad themes into audiences' vulnerable centers.
And in this rich-looking—and rich-sounding—two-year old touring production (which previously stopped in Southern California last year at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A.), the emotional resonance seems more palpable than ever.
Both casual and rabid fans—as well as Les Mis newbies—will not only appreciate this production's re-calibrated, high-quality theatrics (the sets, costumes, effects, and musical orchestrations are just superb), they will also likely cheer and holler for this touring show's incredibly talented ensemble.
How good? Each signature song (from the powerful "I Dreamed A Dream," to the rousing "One Day More," to the heartbreaking "On My Own") is met with such fervent applause—some lasting so long, the actors are often forced to pause longer than they plan to—that you'd swear you're at a One Direction stadium concert instead of just being out for an evening at the theater.
Under the direction of Laurence Connor and James Powell, this anniversary revival truly feels like a steady succession of one showstopper after another. I was genuinely surprised that the audience had the strength to refrain from jumping up to its feet after each song (the latter almost happens after lead actor Peter Lockyer's extraordinary stirring solo on the tear-inducing "Bring Him Home"). It goes without saying that by the show's finalé, the entire capacity-filled theater finally fulfills its urge to give a boisterous standing ovation.
The epic saga's interwoven stories of love, heartache, personal strife, revolution, and human justice all come together to create a grand, exaggerated snapshot of the harsh conditions and unfortunate circumstances that befall the plagued citizens of early-19th Century France. Of particular focus is Jean Valjean (Lockyer), who begins the drama a defeated, broken man after suffering through 19 years of incarceration for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her family.
Released back into society as a bitter, shamed outcast, Valjean reverts to stealing from a kindly Bishop (Ben Magnuson), who in turn takes pity on him and urges him to break his parole and start a new life by assuming a new identity. Eight years pass and Valjean has ascended from his previous livelihood and is now living life as a wealthy business owner and the mayor of his town.
Soon, one of his factory minions, Fantine (super-belter Betsy Morgan) is fired by his foreman after a quarrel, which later forces her to go into a new line of work—prostitution—in order to continue sending money to her secret illegitimate daughter being raised by innkeepers, the Thénardiers (Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic).
After fighting with an abusive "customer," Fantine is later arrested by policeman Javert (the regal-voiced Andrew Varela). Feeling some responsibility for the downtrodden predicament Fantine is now in, Valjean—using his post as Mayor—pleads with Javert for her release to a hospital instead of a jail cell. On her death bed, Fantine receives a solemn promise from Valjean that he would rescue her daughter Cosette then raise her as his own child. At the same time, Valjean's past slowly begins to unravel for Javert, who has been pursuing the fugitive for years and vows vehemently to once and for all get Valjean behind bars once again.
Nine more years pass and Valjean is still in hiding at his palatial estate, living with the now grown-up Cosette (Lauren Wiley). Meanwhile, France is on the brink of revolution, with young students Enjolras (Jason Forbach) and Marius (Max Quinlan) at the forefront of the impending uprising. The Thénardier's own now grown-up daughter, Éponine (the glorious Chasten Harmon) has a secret crush on young Marius, and is later heartbroken upon learning that he has fallen in love with Cosette—the same girl she once lived with at her parents' inn.
Full of intensity and anthemic music, this enjoyable anniversary edition of LES MISÉRABLES—a worthy feat of inventive staging and clever 21st Century theatrical trickery—feels like such a well-oiled, fine-tuned stage spectacular, that I found myself in genuine awe—despite the fact that, heretofore, this musical isn't exactly one of my personal favorites. I can honestly say that it took seeing this production to change my mind.
Epic in both looks and execution, the production's many slight alterations don't hinder its effectiveness; but rather, the changes feel like they have tightened up what before seemed liked a bloated, all too self-important show. It's likely that only this show's most obsessive longtime fans may find themselves nit-picking at all the changes and nuances that have been instituted for this 21st-Century revival; but overall, this LES MISÉRABLES more than lives up to its well-earned hype.
New to the show is the use of Fifty-Nine Productions' projected animated backdrops—a cheesy, lazy cop-out in other shows—which, here, feels marvelously ingenious. In fact, one particular moment, which finds Valjean carrying the injured Marius on his back through the dark depths of Paris' sewers, produced many audible "oohs and aahs" from the audience—and deservedly so. The surprising depth that the projections fabricate on the stage is quite remarkable.
And, really, there are plenty of moments that make the audience feel like they're in the thick of this very morose environment, thanks primarily to these new sets that have been inspired by actual Victor Hugo paintings. Your jaw will drop when you see that mound of junk and debris that has been fashioned as a barricade to protect the rebel stronghold during the battle sequences. Even the absence of the show's now infamously-parodied turntable is hardly missed (Michael Ashcroft's dynamic staging makes up for it).
And, my gosh, this cast will amaze you! The dazzling singing voices of this stellar cast are quite possibly the best vocals I've heard from a touring company on this very stage in a while. Lockyer and Varela, both turning in strong, soul-stirring vocals and gripping acting performances, valiantly lead a cast that can belt these familiar tunes confidently all the way to the rafters. A bit screamy? Perhaps a few of the cast members. But you can't deny their control over their vocal prowess, both as soloists and as a superior collective ensemble.
Standouts in the cast include power-belter Morgan, whose beautiful, effective rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream" early in the play sets the tone for the great vocalists to follow. There's also the wonderful Harmon (as the adult Éponine), who adds subtle Pop/R&B phrasing to her take on "On My Own" that's a welcome surprise; Forbach (as head rebel Enjolras) is believably formidable; Quinlan (as Marius) is blessed with great looks and an excellent singing voice; little Joshua Colley (who plays Gavroche, a role he shares with Marcus D'Angelo) often steals the show with each appearance; and, finally, the comedy team of Gulan and Hamic (as the Thénardiers) add some much-needed levity to the mostly bleak proceedings.
If you're still wondering whether you should check out this version of LES MISÉRABLES for the first or umpteenth time, you owe yourself a trip to the theater to see this well-done production. At the very least, not only will you get to see an amazing cast perform these gorgeous songs very well, you'll get a proper primer for the movie adaptation that comes out at the end of the year. An earthquake may have the power to shake you, but this musical has the power to move you.
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From top: Photo of Peter Lockyer (as Jean Valjean) by Sarah Voisin. Photos by Deen Van Meer: the uprising begins; Fantine (Betsy Morgan) reads about her daughter; the Thénardiers (Timothy Gulan & Shawna M. Hamic) invade a party; Javert (Andrew Varela) makes a vow; Éponine (Chasten Harmon) sings of heartbreak.
Performances of the 25th Anniversary National Tour Production of LES MISÉRABLES at The Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through June 24. Tickets can be purchased online at SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org
The show moves to Seattle, WA June 27 - July 8, San Francisco, CA July 10 - August 26, San Diego, CA August 28 - September 2, then Thousand Oaks, CA September 4 - September 9.
For additional information on LES MISÉRABLES, visit www.LesMis.com.