One of several off-Broadway tour groups presents the South Bend debut of "Les Miserables" at the Morris Performing Arts Center
By AMANDA GRECO
Associate Scene Editor
If you will be going to see "Les Miserables" this weekend, be prepared to sacrifice a significant piece of your time. While the musical itself lasts slightly more than three hours, the powerful effect this performance leaves will continue to resonate long after the final bows.
Calling "Les Miserables" the most famous show in the world is far from an overstatement. "Les Mis" debuted in London 16 years ago and is now in its 15th year on Broadway. Through the years, "Les Mis" has received 50 major awards internationally, including several Grammys and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Musical.
But the show's merit extends far beyond the talented performers and exquisite sets that comprise its many performances. The story, characters, music and emotion transport the audience to revolution-era France where the audience is held entranced by the saga of a struggling nation and the story of one man — both fighting for their freedom.
"Les Miserables" is based upon Victor Hugo's classic 1861 novel. Covering several decades in 19th century France, the story line follows the country's progression towards revolution and convict Jean Valjean's rise towards self-renewal. This stage production of "Les Mis" is more like an opera than a musical. Every line is sung, and while some may find this detracts from the comprehensibility of a show, it is precisely what the drama of this play requires. Actors maintain their characters with ease and portray vivid, affecting emotion without having to break out of rhythm. All too often in traditional musicals, the audience loses a sense of the character and his or her objectives when he or she breaks into random song.
The production is masterfully staged with breathtaking visuals and an awe-inspiring set. The stage is comprised of a large turntable, measuring 34 feet in diameter and weighing approximately 10,000 lbs. The 63 revolutions this stage makes through the course of the show provide scene changes and great demonstrations of motion as characters move through bustling streets and labor districts, travel or rally their allies with cries for freedom. Adding to the atmosphere of the French towns are five fog machines and 500 lbs. of dry ice. The 36 actors are decked in full, time-specific regalia thanks to the more than 1,000 costuming pieces and 45 wigs. The barricade built by the show's Revolutionaries weighs in at an astonishing 12,250 lbs.
With every new venue this travelling show visits comes a new stage with new dimensions and limitations. It is unfathomable, then, that assembly of this stage can be executed in the less than two days before the curtain rises on what has come to be known as the world's best-loved musical.
The play begins while Valjean (Randal Keith) is serving time for stealing a loaf of bread for his dying nephew. After laboring 19 years on the chain gang, Valjean is released on parole, only to find that no one will look past the crime he committed nearly two decades previously. Finally, Valjean is able to find sanctuary with a kind Bishop (Seth Bowling) who offers food and shelter. However grateful he may be, Valjean cannot resist the temptation to steal the Bishop's silver. When Valjean is caught by the police and taken — along with the stolen silver — to the Bishop's house, the Bishop lies for Valjean, saying that the silver was a gift and that Valjean had forgotten the matching candle sticks. The Bishop's only request in return for his kindness is that Valjean reform to lead a life as God's child.
This opening scene presents one of the stronger on-stage images of the production. When Valjean is searching for employment, he is moving through the streets of Digne, passing through crowds and from one employer to the next. These are the first revolutions of the turntable and are one of the most impressive and effective displays of motion presented on any stage.
The next scene carries the audience eight years into the future after Valjean has broken his parole to reinvent himself as a good man with a new name. He has successfully become a mayor, factory owner and well-respected citizen. Here we meet Fantine (Jayne Paterson), a woman who works at Valjean's factory. The secret of her ailing illegitimate child is revealed, a discovery that prompts her fellow workers to successfully push for her dismissal. Desperate for money, Fantine sells first her locket, then her hair and, finally, herself.
The key songs throughout this section of the play have the ability to convey immense emotion and an all-too-real insight into the lives and times of the characters. For the most part, the performances of these songs achieve their purposes.
"At the End of the Day" is a sardonic ode to the passing of time and lack of hope for the unemployed and poorly compensated workers who sing it. The banter of the prostitutes who convince Fantine to join them in "Lovely Ladies" is a depressing look at the reality of the poverty that lowered these women to their profession and the actions of men that continue to hold them down. Injected with a bit of dark humor, the number is one of the show's livelier pieces, believe it or not.
Fantine had an amazing opportunity to rally the audience sympathetically for her cause with "I Dreamed a Dream." This solo is a reflection on the hopes for love and happiness that her youth held and their untimely demise. Patterson has a beautiful voice, but the emotion and fervor that should accompany this song are lacking.
The opening scenes were plagued with a few technical difficulties, presumably originating from a lack of familiarity with the new venue. Several times, microphones did not cue up until the character had sung a word or two and, more frequently, spotlight beams jostled unsteadily across the stage until they found their intended subject.
It is not until the third scene that the true strength of Valjean — both the character and the actor who portrays him — becomes evident. Keith maintains a powerful presence on-stage and has a voice unmatched in quality. Powerfully deep and commanding on such songs as "Soliloquy" and "Who am I," yet tender and moving on "Come to me" and "Bring him home" — sung mostly in an astounding falsetto.
Other notable performances include the young Cosette (Skylar Harden) who innocently portrays an abused and neglected child. Her sweet solo "Castle on a Cloud" brings light and hope into the bitterness of the times. Eponine (Dina Lynne Morishita) offers an amazing performance, drawing all attention each time she is on the stage. Yet, much like Fantine, she fails to deliver on her solo. "On My Own" is a heartbreaking song of unrequited love that requires an intensity that Morishita was only able to provide at the very end of the song. The image of her alone on the stage, dressed as a boy, motionless with her hands in her pockets does not convey the fervor suited to this piece.
As the men rally their forces to stage the Revolution, the sense of suspense builds until the audience is anxiously awaiting the final action. However, this scene is somewhat anti-climactic and a bit disappointing. The culmination of the men's efforts is expressed in a few flashes of light, blank shots and plumes of smoke. The actors do not move convincingly as they barely pause to reload their rifles, and each performer seems to merely be anticipating his cue to die. The scene does not do justice to the suspense, the intricacy of the barricade upon which they fall or the work and ideals of the characters who die fighting for their cause.
Altogether, "Les Miserables" still delivers an amazing show. After 16 years, the power of the story is not lost. And while it is certain that each actor has performed his or her part countless times, the cast is still able to convincingly convey each character. The final scene in which Fantine's spirit comes to call for Valjean is perhaps the most heart-rending scene of all. It is doubtful from the resounding sniffles that there was a dry eye in the audience.
"Les Miserables" stirs emotion and pulls the audience in as few shows can. It is for this reason that your mind will remain entrenched in the scenes for hours after the performance. A production that can affect people for days after attending is as rare as a show that can remain powerfully moving after years on the stage, which is as uncommon as a story whose message can still ring true centuries after being penned.
Contact Amanda Greco at email@example.com
All Scene Stories for Friday, November 16, 2001