Thursday, October 09, 2003

Les Miserables (Playhouse Square Center)

'Les Miserables' visits Cleveland, and wows the audience, once again

I have to admit it, I’m a sucker for ‘LES MISERABLES.’ It remains one of my very favorite musical theatre scripts, along with the likes of ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF,’ ‘WEST SIDE STORY,’ ‘CAROUSEL,’ ‘MY FAIR LADY,’ ‘PIPPIN,’ ‘THE KING AND I,’ ‘MAN OF LAMANCHA,’ ‘CHORUS LINE,’ AND ‘RAGTIME.’

It was, therefore, a little disappointing, that during the first act of the opening night performance of the present production, I found myself getting very antsy. All the elements were there...the full Broadway set with its awe-inspiring turntables and huge barricade and cityscapes, the marvelous costumes, a lush orchestra, fine vocal sounds, and the good singing voices of the lead characters. So, what was missing. I often found that the actors were singing words, not meanings of the words, some of the timing was off, such as in the usually raucous “Master of the House.” Fortunately, by the second act, the cast settled in, the pacing of the show picked up, and the audience got swept away. Whew!!

The musical is based on Victor Hugo’s epic and classic pre-French revolutionary war novel. It foreshadows what will soon happen in France. It asks, “What is the moral way to act?,” and how much do we have to pay for our small or large transgressions. Think of the television series and the movie, ‘THE FUGITIVE’ with music.

The story centers on Jean Valjean, who, at the start, is released on parole after 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to fee his ailing nephew. He finds that the yellow ticket-of-leave he must, by law, display condemns him to be an outcast. Only the saintly Bishop of Digne treats him kindly and Valjean, embittered by years of hardship, repays him by stealing some silver. Valjean is caught and brought back by police, and is astonished when the Bishop lies to the police to save him, also giving him two precious candlesticks. Valjean decides to start his life anew. The rest of the musical follows him through the rest of the his life.

Songs include the compelling, “Soliloquy,” the gorgeous, “I Dream a Dream,” the social commentary, “Who Am I?,” the enthralling, “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” the heart rending, “On My Own,” and the haunting, “Bring Him Home.”

Randal Keith, who was one of the many who played Jean Valjean on Broadway was outstanding. He has a big voice and clear grasp of the character. James Clow, portraying the policeman Javert who dedicated his life to finding and punishing Valjean, did not have the evil-edge needed for the role, though his singing voice was glorious. Amanda Huddelston, portraying Cosette, an orphan who Valjean adopts to be his daughter, has a fine voice but failed to get full worth out of her songs. She often overlooked the implications of the words she sang. Josh Young was appealing as Marius, Cosette’s lover and idealistic student. Ma-Anne Dionisio was voice and performance perfect as a street walker who loved Marius. Michael Kostroff got laughs as the innkeeper, but was far inferior to most who have played the roll. The children in the cast were weak in both singing and acting.

Capsule judgement: Missed “Les Miz” this time around? Don’t worry, if the past is prologue, it will tour through town again.