Tuesday, September 4, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Les Misérables" at Broadway San Diego

“Les Misérables” is (still) epic storytelling at its finest:

Cameron Mackintosh’s spectacular and stirring new 25th Anniversary touring production proves that some musicals only get better with age

By Donnie Matsuda

The Company of "Les Mis."  Photo courtesy of Deen van Meer.
There is always a huge risk in taking tried and true musical theatre masterpieces and trying to give them a new, revitalized look.  Oftentimes, devoted fans of the show who have seen it a gazillion times will be sorely disappointed (and some may border on pure rage and resentment) when they come to find that their beloved staging has been changed and the sets and costumes updated.  Yet others who are brand new to the show might feel robbed of seeing a perfect reincarnation of the original, as if somehow they are now missing out on all that it was or used to be.

Well, fear not.  With the new 25th Anniversary production of Les Misérables, which recently stormed through San Diego from August 28-Sept 2, both devoted fans and newbies alike will be spellbound by this astonishingly powerful, brilliantly re-imagined production.  While the direction, musical arrangements, and technical elements are fresh and new, the heart of the musical – a gripping, emotional tale of redemption, love, and hope told through one of the most poignant and magnificent scores in all of musical theatre history - remains intact.  And not only does this spectacular new staging more clearly illuminate the emotional core of the musical, but it also features a first rate cast of glorious singers who handle the sweeping score and complex scenic shifts with ease.

Andrew Varela as Javert.  Photo courtesy of Deen van Meer.
Based on Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel, Les Misérables focuses on the life of Jean Valjean (the thrilling dramatic tenor of Peter Lockyear) as he serves a nineteen year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread.  Valjean decides to break parole and turn his life around, leading a life of morality and compassion, inspired by his new-found faith in God.  He soon encounters a factory-worker-cum-prostitute Fantine (the stunning mezzo-soprano of Betsy Morgan) who dies of consumption and asks Valjean to look after her child Cosette (an earnest and strong-voiced Lauren Wiley). 

Meanwhile, Cosette’s childhood enemy, Éponine (a tomboyish Briana Carlson-Goodman), tries to escape the roustabout lifestyle provided by her bawdy innkeeper parents (a devilishly delightful Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic as M. and Mme. Thénardier, respectively) and secretly yearns for the love of handsome student revolutionary Marius (an ardent Max Quinlan), who is not-so-secretly in love with Cosette.  On one occasion, this tragic love triangle is given an incredibly poignant staging, with Cosette combing her hair on the second floor terrace, Marius climbing over a massive iron gate to gain entrance to her home, and Éponine trapped on the outside of the wall, watching in despair and disappointment.  There is so much symbolism here (the gate representing the division of Marius’ love, the levels corresponding to each characters’ social strata, etc.) and – like most of the scenes in this meticulously re-vamped version – it all plays out with equal parts gravitas and grace.

Peter Lockyear as Jean Valjean.  Photo courtesy of Deen van Meer.
Even the smaller roles in this staging don’t go unnoticed.  As the inspector who relentlessly chases after Valjean, Javert (the beautifully voiced baritone Andrew Varela) not only gets to showcase some incredibly show-stopping solos – all of which bring the house down before the final notes are sung – but his death scene is probably one of the most creatively imagined and brilliantly staged this reviewer has ever seen.  Who could imagine that a jump off a bridge could be so dazzling and real!?  And the rest of the cast, which includes a passionate Jason Forbach as Enjolras, an adorable Joshua Colley as Gavroche, and an impeccably-voiced 25-member ensemble, provides incredibly strong support.

The Company of "Les Mis."  Photo courtesy of Deen van Meer.
Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell (who re-conceived the original staging by Trevor Nunn and John Caird) should be proud of their flawless vision that keeps the poignancy and thrill of the piece at an all time high throughout the musical’s nearly three hour run time.  It is all underscored with some new orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe, and Stephen Brooker who give the original orchestrations by John Cameron a little more breathing room.  And every last note is played to perfection by a large and lush 14-piece orchestra under the expert baton of conductor Kevin Stites.  How wonderful (and how rare) it is to hear a full, live orchestra tackle this sweeping Claude-Michel Schönberg score!

And last but not least, Matt Kinley deserves special mention for his awe-inspiring set designs which are handsomely modeled after paintings by Victor Hugo.  Not only are they impressive in size and scale, but they also are seamlessly integrated into a number of stunning projections that add dimension and movement when the time is right.  Add to that some spectacular costumes by Andreane Neofitou and some deftly theatrical lighting by Paule Constable and you have a thrilling technical treat that dazzles the eye from prologue to final curtain, a feat not often seen in these recession-racked times.

Timothy Gulan (raised) as "Master of the House."  Photo courtesy of Deen van Meer.
So, whether young or old, “Les Mis” junkie or not, the new 25th Anniversary production of Les Misérables is a monumental new staging that is sure to be loved and admired by audiences across America.  It not only pays homage to the original: it takes all that is right about the original (which remains the the third longest running Broadway production of all time) and makes the storytelling more vivid, the orchestrations more lavish, and the technical wizardry even more impressive.   Indeed, Les Misérables has returned ... and it is stronger than ever.

Things to know before you go: Les Misérables presented by Broadway San Diego played at The San Diego Civic Theatre at 3rd and B Street from August 28 - September 2, 2012.  Running time is 3 hours with a 20 minute intermission.  Ticket prices vary.  For more information and to purchase tickets, visit TicketMaster.com, call (888) 937-8995, or visit www.BroadwaySD.com.

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