Friday, March 29, 2013

Les Misérables

A heads up, this is not necessarily a review. I talk about what I want to talk about, and it includes commentary that compares previous performances and recordings, includes personal anecdotes, and a little bit of this and that. In other words, it's long. It's funny too, but ya know, if you want something short and sweet, you best head over to Jessi's much more reasonably sized review on

Wednesday night Christmas 2012 came to a close. Yep. My family got to enjoy our group Christmas present: Tickets to see Les Misérables at Landmark Theater.

Les Mis is sort of the family musical. I know I've seen it at least 5 or 6 times. It was the first show I've ever seen—it was at the Roanoke Coliseum when I was 7 years old. I remember being completely appalled by my mother and father's tearful display throughout the show. I was so embarrassed—my parents crying! The shame, the shame! Of course it turned out everyone else had been crying too. On the way out of the show, a good ole boy in his formal flannel and very best denim turned to his also dungaree'd friend and said in a very Southern Virginia accent, "Well there might have been a dry eye in the house, but it sure as hell wasn't mine." As it turned out, when I got older I joined the crying masses, although I'm pretty sure my mom still cries way more than me.

Love you, Mom.

If you don't know the story of Les Mis you can go to Wikipedia and read the plot. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Or don't. I don't particularly care either way; just know that at no point am I going to summarize it for you in this post.

We really enjoyed ourselves—it was once again a beautiful, moving experience. Each company's interpretation is obviously going to be different, as are the strengths and weaknesses of the individual actors. That's what I actually love about seeing a show again and again—it's going to be different in one way or another.

In past shows, Jean Valjean has been performed by actors who tried way too hard to emulate Colm Wilkinson. Wilkinson, whose performance of our tragic hero was fantastically overwrought, is difficult to imitate well, but I've certainly seen it done.

Skip to the :30 mark for a sample of his work.

I'll give you all a moment to collect yourselves.

In this case Wednesday night's Valjean, portrayed by the surprisingly young Peter Lockyer, there was no hint of the specter of Wilkinson hanging over his performance. It was so refreshing seeing an actor's take on a character, instead of an actor's take on another's actor's interpretation. His performance was, more anything humble, the confidence and strength of his character being conveyed as a gradual, natural build, which I quite liked. The humble approach only failed to satisfy when he sang simultaneously with Javert, during which his vocals were lost.

Andrew Varela, who previously played Jean Valjean for 5 years, gave a stunning performance as Inspector Javert. He was flawless, simply put. "Stars" is among one of my favorite songs, and it's one of the few times in my life I wish I were a man, just so I could sing this song. The other times involve camping.

There's a reason why Russell Crowe didn't get nominated for a Golden Globe or an Oscar for his role in the film version of Les Mis: He was unremarkable as a singer, which was most apparent during "Stars." And since I saw the movie I've carried the injury Crowe so carelessly inflicted on me. Enter Valera, the Neosporin to my Russell Crowe wound. And it was more than just "Stars." His commanding performance made him the standout performer in this production.

Alright, honest Oprah time, I freaking love Enjolras. Seriously, I love that character. Even though I can't pronounce his name. It doesn’t matter which production we're talking about, I love him. I have never seen a bad Enjolras. This performance was no exception. Jason Forbach's Enjolras was charismatic, passionate, and hauntingly beautiful.

The Thénardiers, performed by Tom Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic, were solid. Both actors were very comfortable in their comedic roles. Probably the biggest laugh of the show was when Mme Thénardier dropped a silver tray she'd been attempting to make off with. I was particularly glad to see they didn't employ a Cockney accent. I don't really get why others make that acting choice, but it doesn't add anything, IMHO. Also worth nothing, Gulan did a really good job with "Dog Eat Dog." It's really easy to go off the deep end with character acting, and he struck a good balance. "Dog Eat Dog" was one of the songs cut from the film version—something that was pretty disappointing for me.

I not-so-secretly long to play Mme Thénardier, one of those few roles in which a big girl (such as me) can flourish. I'm not exactly sure why the role's always played by a big lady (except for Helena Bonham-Carter, although I'm not really sure why she played Mme Thénardier either.) It doesn’t make sense from a historical standpoint. A poor person isn't going to be fat. It isn't logical. But there's no logic at work here. No, Mme Thénardier is fat because fat people are HILARIOUS. Ending that rant, here.

Not everything was peachy keen though. Devin Ilaw's approach to Marius was a little too meek and boyish for me, and as a result he seemed like the youngest adult in the cast. But maybe I'm biased. I mean after all I am a staunch Nick Jonas as Marius fan.

Lol, j/k. Seriously? They cast him as Marius?? SERIOUSLY?! No. Gtfo, kid. Where's Michael Ball?

Jokes aside, it was obvious how much Ilaw has poured into "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables." The desperation and mourning in his voice brought me to tears.

The only real complaint I have will probably cause anyone who's still reading this far calling me a prude. The graphic sexual miming was a bit much. And I double checked with my friend Jessi, this isn't just me—it was GRAPHIC. I know I'm an adult, but it was awkward to the point of distracting seeing a prostitute mime oral sex. I pretty much missed half of Mme Thénardier's rant about her husband because there were two people in the "balcony" of the tavern set who were having sex, complete with vigorous thrusting motions as her legs were up over her head. Only, of course, to be immediately followed by a change of positions with him going at her from behind as she gave appropriate facial expressions to convey her ecstasy. It was awkward, and I don't care if you lot think I'm a complete prude for saying so. So maybe a little less thrusting next time?

A pretty big change that took some getting used to on my part was the set. In the past, I've seen it performed on a rotating stage; a piece that I'm guessing was expensive, cumbersome, and probably limited which theaters could host the show. Now the show is being done a traditional stage floor. And it's fine, it works for the most part. The only time I think something was lost was during scenes at the barricade. Seeing Enjolras's body draped over the front of the barricade, or seeing Gavroche's final moments, taunting his enemies, even as he dies; the impact of the modified versions of these moments just wasn't as meaningful.

Something that always nags me about the show is the hidden message. Consider who dies and who suffers the most. Good people, for the most part. Even Javert is good, even if he's the antagonist—he's just doing his duty. But then look at the Thénardiers, who abuse Cosette, con their customers, steal from everyone—including from the dead and dying. And they're unapologetic about it. Yet at the end of the show, they are able to successfully parley their way into society, and arguably, (except where love is concerned) end up on top. The innocents suffer while the corrupt win. That's a pretty bleak ending. I guess it's realistic too, when you think about it.

And on that note…