Les Misérables, music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, book by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"One Day More" - the company; photo: Matthew Murphy
"...to rest from wrong."
Everytime I hear that lyric I hear it as "to wrest from wrong." When the priest sings to Jean Valjean about the respite offered the ex-convict hero of this show it seems to me that solace is not being given, but rather instruction for a life to come. Evil has happened. Valjean has been given parole after 19 years at hard labor for stealing one loaf of bread to feed his starving family. The outcast then goes on to steal the priest's silver candlesticks and sets into motion a life devoted to service and to wrangling as much good out of mankind as it is possible for any individual to do. "To wrest from wrong." It's what this show is really all about.
It is forged in two relationships: Valjean and his tormentor, the policeman Javert who pursues him with a single-minded passion that borders on iconic adoration; and Valjean's ward, Cosette, who falls in love with the student-revolutionary Marius and enlists Valjean's help in saving him from sure death on the barricades in the revolution of 1832. In the production, currently playing at Proctors in Schenectady, NY, the foursome in those roles wrest every bit of angst, musical and otherwise, out of this piece and leave their audience weak from the efforts.
Happiness is not on display very much and this production, dark and depressing, is beautifully realized as the mood of the show becomes the greater show through the projections by Fifty-Nine Productions and the sound design by Nick Potter, the lighting by Paule Constable and the set and image desigtn by Matt Kinley take prominence over the performers. The technical aspects of this production are glorious and keep the story grounded even when the music attempts to soar. Schönberg's songs begin tunefully but usually move into the statosphere where humming gets lost and the song disappears. This nearly three hour through-composed dark-toned light-opera has seven or eight great phrases, but the songs never stick with you, their leit-motiv concept playing well for the entirety of the score, but never become hit songs.
Thank goodness for a fabulous cast to sing this complex melo-drama. Along with the technical aspects (you'll never forget Javert's final moments) the voices of this very large company of 38 singer-actors are superb. Nick Cartell's Jean Valjean is a glorious tenor with an easy high placement that makes his songs seem highly singable. He is also a moving actor who brings those talents to bear in the book and in his eloquent prayer, "Bring Him Home." Josh Davis gives a lyric baritone edge to Javert and keeps him physically threatening which is wonderful.
Jillian Butler is a most graceful Cosette, although she is almost a shadow of her mother, Fantine, played here with strength and beauty by Melissa Mitchell. The third principal woman in the show, Eponine is played with a boyish forcefulness by Emily Bautista and her song, "On My Own" is a classic heartbreaker tenderly reckoned with by this artist. Mitchell's rendition of Fantine's ballad, "I Dreamed a Dream," sets a tone for the entire production.
As Cosette's love interest, Marius, Joshua Grosso cuts a most romantic figure and his tenor voice adds another layer of musicality to the work. Loved by both Cosette and Eponine, he has the luxury of duets with both women and the generosity as a performer to allow them both to shine as he vocally supports them with what sounds like love. His companions at the barricades are all excellent singers and romantic figures, but none are better than the boy who plays Gavroche, a child who exults in playing a role in the revolution, played, I believe, by Jonah Mussolino at the performance on Tuesday night. In a season of touring productions that have graced the stage in Schenectady I've seen some talented children but none moreso than the boy in this show.
Talent will out, they say, and in this show talent needs to outlet; the show itself provides that for everyone involved. I must add that this is not my favorite musical, but a few productions have touched me deeply. This one, for the uniformity of its cast and crew abilities, is one that will be hard to forget. The story's darkness with an undercurrent of romantic love shapes my reaction to it every time.
Josh Davis and Nick Cartell; photo: Matthew Murphy
Jillian Butler; photo: Matthew Murphy
Joshua Grosso; photo: Matthew Murphy
Anthony Crane; photo: Matthew Murphy
Luckily there is some comedy - of sorts - as the Thenardier's sing, dance, steal, imitate and reflect the French society of the times. These commoners are abusive, sick, and evil-minded, yet they bring a bit of humor into the operation and, as played by Allison Guinn and Anthony Crane, they never stretch credibility for a laugh. These two are never less mean-spirited when singing their hit tune "Master of the House." They have the one song that you sing leaving the theater and it seems so appropriate that this particular honor should have been given to the ugly, mean couple who mistreat children, cheat their customers, loot from the dead and become the new post-revolution society.
This production is on tour and it may be possible to catch a glimpse of it elsewhere, but while it is here, in the neighborhood so to speak, it would be worthwhile devoting time to it. It is shorter than the Victor Hugo novel and a bit easier to grasp, Some of the vocalizing could use a bit of punch to bring clarity, but for the most part the cast bring the lyrics forward. The big problem with the show is that a massive work has been digested and spewed out with one incident following another in great haste. The highpoints of the book are all there, but the interpretation is left to us rather than to the presenters so we have to work a bit harder to keep up with what lies beneath. It's a challenge worth taking, I think, in a production as well-realized as this one.
Les Miz (as it is called), plays at Proctors in Schenectady through February 25. Check their website for availability.