Sucks to Be French

I wasn’t planning to go to Les Misérables. Not that I have anything against the blockbuster 1985 musical of Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel—I’d never seen the one nor read the other, so I couldn’t really have an opinion about it. It’s just that my friend Kaya Oakes was having her book launch for her excellent new book Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church at the same time as SHN’s press night for the touring 25th-anniversary production of Les Miz at the Orpheum, and my friend’s event took precedence.  However, my wife absolutely loves Les Miz, having seen a previous touring production many years ago, and it happens that Kaya has another reading tonight that we could go to instead, so off we went to the barricades.

It’s a beautiful day on East Hastings…for the cast of Les Miserables. Photo by Deen Van Meer.

If you’ve somehow remained as innocent of the story as I have, Hugo’s novel tells the tale of various miserable downtrodden people in the early 1800s in France, leading up to (and past) the 1832 Paris uprising. Chief of these is Jean Valjean, a prisoner released on parole after 19 years’ hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. Breaking his parole, he reinvents himself as a rich factory owner and mayor, while the pitiless, uncompromising policeman Javert pledges to hound the fugitive to the ends of the earth. That in itself goes on for at least 20 years, though from the aging of characters in the play I’d assumed it was more like 40.

The musical is entirely sung through, with a minimum of spoken dialogue, and was originally adapted into a 1980 French concept album with lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. The musical that debuted on London’s West End in 1985 was adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, and it would go on to become the second longest-running musical in the world, the second longest-running show on the West End, and the third longest-running show in Broadway history. So all those desperately poor, starving Frenchmen have done pretty well for themselves.

It’s interesting coming to a show as big and iconic as this one without any real expectations. I’d heard snippets of songs such as “I Dreamed a Dream” and “One Day More” here and there, although until I saw the show last night I hadn’t realized how precisely (and how brilliantly) the South Park movie had recreated the latter. If I started giggling hysterically during the dramatic first-act closing number, that would be why. I was also surprised to find that “On My Own” came from Les Miz, or indeed from any historically-set period musical, because it always seemed like a standard contemporary pop love song.

It was equally interesting seeing it with my wife, who had a completely different perspective on why certain moments just weren’t working for me. I found that while the songs were quite pleasant, none of them had any emotional impact, even though there was a lot of emoting going on onstage. I also certainly noticed that any given scene seemed a little rushed and confusing, but that certainly didn’t keep the three hours of episodic, one-damn-thing-after-another storytelling from feeling awfully long.

But I wouldn’t have known until my wife told me that the songs themselves had been sped up, including the sad laments, which could certainly account for their lack of emotional impact. And, perversely, if it wasn’t so rushed it might not seem so long. Had revival directors Laurence Connor and James Powell taken more time to plumb the pathos of some of these scenes, they mightn’t seem quite so perfunctory and one might be swept away rather than wondering just how many more scenes there were going to be after the climactic event has clearly passed.

Certainly there’s a lot of drama going on.  The swelling bombast of Schönberg’s score by itself is enough to sound the alarm that history is on the march, even if there weren’t a motley crew of ragged Parisians and posh-looking students on the march waving a red flag around. If you don’t know much about this uprising, the musical or its program notes aren’t really going to tell you. Suffice it to say that France is just a horrible place, especially for poor people, and they’re rising up against their country’s suckitude.

The actors have clearly been cast for their singing more than for their acting. With only a few exceptions, the performances are operatic—that is, either melodramatically overstated or inertly understated, with all the emotion coming out in the voice. Peter Lockyer’s Jean Valjean isn’t much to watch (although he is apparently basically Superman, lifting an overturned cart full of cannons and gunpowder off some guy single-handedly), but boy can he sing. His musical prayer to keep his daughter’s boyfriend safe, “Bring Him Home,” isn’t the kind of song I’d normally pay much attention to, but he sings it with such aching beauty that it’s a showstopper, earning the longest round of midshow applause of the night.

Andrew Valera has a pleasing baritone as Javert, but his stolidity comes off as stiffness, and Lauren Wiley’s melodious warbling is so gorgeous as Valjean’s adopted daughter Cosette that you might not notice that she’s just standing there.

Mind you, there are a few standout dramatic performances as well. Brianna Carlson-Goodman is bittersweetly sympathetic as Éponine, the faithful friend who loves the guy who loves Cosette, even if her lovely warm voice doesn’t blend well with the sweet harmony of the lovers, Wiley’s Cosette and Max Quinlan’s Marius.

Shawna M. Hamic is amusing as Madame Thénardier, the greedy innkeeper’s wife entrusted with raising young Cosette while her impoverished mother is slaving away in a factory. As for Timothy Gulan as the rogue Thénardier, I was surprised to find out that this is the show’s main comic role, because Gulan isn’t the least bit funny. Shouty and effectively loathsome, sure, but not funny.

Alternating in the role with Joshua Colley, child actor Marcus D’Angelo is a delight as Gavroche, the little boy who’s prepared to lead the rebellion all by himself. He’s easily the best thing in the show, so it’s a shame that his part has been much reduced in this particular version. His big song has been cut (as it often is, but not always) and, most egregiously, his last scene takes place entirely offstage, behind the barricade. The original production famously used a revolving stage, and the directors of the 25th anniversary revival haven’t worked out a workable workaround for the barricade scene. Gavroche’s final lines are delivered in voiceover while the eye has nothing to focus on but the silent emoting of the usually mocking lout Grantaire (Joseph Spieldenner), easily the least likeable of the students, as he listens. (It’s interesting to discover in the program that everyone in the chorus of students has a name, which you’d never know from watching the show. They probably have individual characteristics in Hugo’s novel.)

That’s just one of several oddly anticlimactic staging decisions by directors Connor and Powell. In one character’s big death scene, a coat is opened to reveal what we’re told is a lot of blood, and we just have to take it on faith because there’s none visible. That same dying character then sings about how it’s raining, which it’s not because I guess that’s not in the budget. But that person’s mike also cuts out periodically during the dying song, so it would be pretty easy to miss the reference.

An intriguing mix of rolling set pieces and projected backgrounds inspired by Hugo’s own paintings, Matt Kinley’s new set creates an effective atmosphere for the most part, with the aforementioned caveat about how it limits what we do and don’t see. The set also gets a workout, because the show rushes so often from one location to another. Some scenes are staged remarkably well, especially with the moving backgrounds enabled by Fifty-Nine Productions’ video projections. The streets retreating as the masses are on the march is all well and good, but the way the background creates the virtual environment of the catacombs beneath Paris is remarkable. Also startlingly effective is the swirling blackness into which one character plummets as he meets his end.

Other touches are more heavy-handed, such as the too-frequent use of bright beams of white light in Paule Constable’s lighting design. Sometimes it’s the light beaming in through a small grate above, which is fine. Sometimes it’s the glowing white passage of a dying soul to its great reward, or so it seems. And sometimes it just seems to be the light of God. When Javert prays to finally catch Valjean, white light pours down onto him from above, pretty clearly giving him the almighty’s seal of approval.

Even in a version that’s pared down both in time and in production values, it’s still a pretty freaking huge production. A large cast gives it a big sound, and the surging anthem of solidarity is invigoratingly energetic, even if it doesn’t stir the heart so much. I see a lot of new musicals, and they often have trouble coming up with a showstopping number to close the first act, and “One Day More” is a case study in how to do it right.

I’m still not entirely sold on Les Misérables as a musical. I have to take my wife’s word for it that songs like Javert’s lament “Stars” ever packed any punch, because they sound perfunctory here. If I hadn’t already known “I Dreamed a Dream” was a big deal, I wouldn’t have guessed it here, because Betsy Morgan as the dying Fantine is distractingly sharp when wailing about that dream she dreamed of days gone by. My lovely wife says those songs sound way better when they take their time with them, and maybe so. The musical motifs recur a lot, making some of the songs sound kind of samey and others sound like they’re about to be reprised when they’re not.

But it’s a musical that goes all out, with big laments of angst and pathos, big death scenes, big declarations of love, even a big battle—even here, where none of it’s quite as big as it could be, it’s still pretty damn big and dramatic, and I respect that. I can certainly see the appeal. It doesn’t necessarily even need the rotating barricade, although it does need some way to see what’s going on behind it. More than anything, what this production really needs is more heart. We can hear the people singing, sure, and they sound great, but we can’t begin to feel what they’re feeling.

Les Misérables
Through August 26
Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #65 of 2012, attended July 11.

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