Saturday, May 16, 2015

Review of Musical Theatre West’s Les Miserables

Hello!

I have been a season subscriber to Musical Theatre West for a few years, and have almost always been impressed with what they have been able to put together for their fans. So, I was beside myself when I saw that Les Miserables, one of the most popular musicals of all time, was on the schedule for the 2014-2015 season. I had the chance to see it this time around and came away a little underwhelmed, unfortunately.

Musical Theatre West has been around since 1952, when it started out as the Whittier Civic Light Opera. Their productions evolved over time, and they went from being an all-volunteer operation to producing full seasons, currently under the capable leadership and vision of Executive Director/produce Paul Garman. Their big shows are hosted by the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, which is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking. And only two bathrooms...

Les Miserables is based on the 1862 Victor Hugo historical novel from 1862, and it is set in the early 19th century France, up until the 1835 June Rebellion in Paris. It is a heavy read, but it is a fascinating book that spends most of its text discussing French History. It is worth the effort to thumb through it.

The musical version was introduced in France in 1980, with the original Broadway run from 1987 to 1993. Since then it has had two Broadway revivals and numerous national tours, but very few local theatre companies have staged this show. Musical Theatre West certainly gave it a good shot, after 20 years of trying to get rights to the show.

I will skip the storyline, as you are probably familiar enough with it by now, but it is a tragic story of love, politics, and death.

It is probably best to start with the cast, and they landed a really big name, Davis Gaines (Phantom of the Opera on Broadway), to play Inspector Javert. He was joined by Michael Hunsaker at Jean Valjean, Madison Parks as the grown-up Cosette, Devin Archer as Marius, and Emily Martin as Eponine. Stand-out performances came from Norman Large as Thenardier and Ruth Williamson as his wife. There was a huge cast, with over 30 actors in the production.

They also put together a very good orchestra, with almost 20 musicians in the pit. Andrew Bryan was the musical director, and he did a great job of bringing Schonberg’s music to life. As always, it is disappointing to see that the musicians got no credit in the program. Shameful.

Cliff Simon’s sets were very good were very good, but Paul Black’s lighting was spectacular and really helped to set the mood of the show. Karen St. Pierre’s costumes were authentic, and nothing seemed out of place.

All of these elements set everything up for a very good production, but it really fell flat in real life, and for a lot of reasons. Maybe they should have called it “Meh Miserables.”

For starters, the show itself is a bit iffy (sorry, fans), and if everything is not done perfectly it is really a slog. It comes in at a running time of over 3 hours, and it is all singing and no dialogue. The chorus was not up to the complicated lyrics, and their timing and emphasis was off, which made it seem even longer

The sound was, quite simply, terrible. With that many singers and actors on stage, there are a lot of microphones to keep track of, and there were numerous times when microphones were not turned on when they were supposed to be. This was a major distraction, not to mention a killer of the storyline if the audience was not familiar with the show. Also, the sound was way too loud at times, and after 3 hours it can really wear you down. Keep in mind that I mostly review rock shows, so I am intimately familiar with what too loud is.

Les Miserables was just a bit too grand of a show for Musical Theatre West to pull off, and it was one of their very few mis-steps in a long history of putting on excellent shows. The show has closed, so you missed out this time around. Or maybe not. Anyway, it is time to start thinking about tickets for the last show of this season, Singin’ in the Rain, which will be playing from July 10th through 26th. Also, now is the time to make plans for next year’s season, which will include My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Sister Act. You can’t beat the value!

Mahalo!

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