"Les Miz"by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schömberg, based on a novel by Victor Hugo, with additional material by James Fenton and English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Directed by John Simpkins. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Justin Patterson and Brian Cali; photo: Randy O'Rourke
"Let him answer to Javert."
Ordinarily there is an identifiable good guy and an equally evident bad guy in a story. In every production of the sung-through musical "Les Misérables" I’ve seen to date it’s been pretty obvious that Jean Valjean is the good guy, even though he has spent 19 years serving time for a petty crime, and his tormentor Inspector Javert is the bad one. In the new production of the show presented by Tri-Arts at the Sharon Playhouse this has all changed. We now have two personable men, each living to the moral code that controls his own life and they are both good guys whose lives keep them entangled both emotionally and physically. For the seventeen year span of the story this is an amazing relationship.
If I start telling you too much, skip to the next paragraph, but it is hard to believe that there is anyone left who hasn’t been exposed to this work, originally produced on Broadway way back in 1987 for over 6600 performances, revived in 2006 for more than 450 performances and currently playing on Broadway again, after the film version has made its rounds. So, here goes.
This production is stylishly created, humanely directed and (and this will surely change since I saw the first performance, pre-official opening) sung and acted quite beautifully for the most part in spite of a terrible imbalance in sound between orchestra and singers. What amazes me is the change in Javert, the bad guy. Cast against type with a handsome man who sings with a fine tenor voice, he is never deliberately mean or small-minded in his interactions with Valjean or anyone else. As played by actor Justin Patterson he is clearly a character cut from virgin cloth, a man with distinct morals and beliefs that cannot be shaken. His determination to follow the ex-con Valjean seems to be akin to a modern-day supervisor of a half-way house who wants the reparation and repair of a vagrant soul. This change in Javert brings him, in act two after Valjean spares Javert’s life, to that point on a bridge over the Seine where his questioning of his long-held moral beliefs is really the obvious destination of his life.
In most productions Javert is sickened by his allowing his quarry to proceed unimpaired. His decisions on the bridge are an outrageous self-destruction brought on by personal shame. Here, with Patterson’s take under director John Simpkins direction, he is discovered to be struck by remorse, finding that his strict code of behavior is not necessarily the only outlook, or the right one. The actor uses this uncertainty to move his character into the limbo that follows in a unique way that changes Javert from villain to victim and his actions are the only right ones according to that same code by which he has lived. This is a brilliant coup for director and actor. It changes everything.
Valjean is played by Brian Cali, an actor who was occasionally difficult to understand but whose work in this show is exemplary. He is the incredible hulk of personal, internal heroism who cannot understand his good side right from the outset. He knows that his crime was committed with the best intentions and his second crime is committed with much the same intent. What follows is the story of a different moral code from Javert's, one based on retribution and honesty (though not with truthfulness until late in the game) that both cripples and supports this man throughout his life. Cali does a fine job presenting this and that’s not easy in a show like this where every second is scripted within its music.
Sarah Cline brings a sweetness, in voice and nature, to Fantine whose death haunts Valjean and whose daughter, Cosette, he raises as his own. Her song "I Dreamed a Dream" was especially soulful. As her child there were two actress who distinguished themselves in the part. The eight-year old version, played by Charlotte Clulow, was wistful and wonderful while the adult Cosette, played by Katie Nicole Weiser sang beautifully.
Eponine, the girl who sacrifices herself on barricades for Marius, the boy she loves, was played with heart and depth by Kalli Siringas and her song "On My Own" - an odd variation on Fantine’s song - was moving.
Travis Mitchell and Jamie Nelson Schraff played the Thenardiers, a couple who could have walked out of a Dickens novel with ease, comic, dire, without a conscience between them. They did a fine job bringing these scallywags to life.
Among the supporting players there were some definite stand-out performances. Handsome Sergio Pasquariello sang a boisterous and blustery Enjolras, the student who leads the revolution efforts. Evan Fine, as the boy, Gavroche, was remarkably good. Patton Chandler made an appealing Marius, whose love for Cosette prompts a lot of the action of the play. The quartet of despairing revolutionaries who begin the song "Drink with Me to Days Gone By" were so moving I wept ( I believe they were Christian Lange, Alan J. Kelly, Samuel Everett and Luke Garrison). In all there are 35 talented people on stage for this show, so it’s impossible to single out everyone.
There is also a nine piece orchestra, over-miked on this first performance to the point of distortion, often overwhelming the singers, a balance problem that I am hopeful will be corrected.
Production values here were excellent. Michael Schweikardt has filled the stage with two units the revolve and unite into a the perfect set of places, as needed. Michelle Eden Humphrey has provided picture perfect costumes and Chris Dallos’ lighting design creates moment after moment of perfection from the barricades to the river, to the inner-city garden of Jean Valjean’s home. Music Director Eric Kang kept the show moving along briskly (the full running time, though, is still two hours, forty-nine minutes).
This extraordinary effort’s success is dependent upon the eye, ear and mind of director John Simpkins who has mastered the art of epic theater in a sung-through format. What really works is the show and the change in Javert and for that the director must take much of the credit. With a brief, two-week run in Sharon, this is a show to be seen by Les Miz fans certainly and by people new to the work as well.
Les Misérables plays through June 29 at the Tri-Arts Sharon Playhouse, located at 49 Amenia Road (Route 343), Sharon, CT, 06069. For information and/or tickets call the box office at 860-364-7469 (SHOW) or go on line to www.triarts.net.