Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert are duking it out on the stage of the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts in what may well be the L.A. musical theater production of the year as the international phenomenon that is Boublil And Schönberg’s Les Misérables gets its long-awaited Los Angeles Regional Premiere from the theater that has brought audiences spectacular big-stage productions of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Miss Saigon, and Peter Pan in the last two or so years alone.
For those who may somehow never have jumped on the Les Miz bandwagon, Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Misérables, set to music here by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, centers on two men in early 19th Century France—heroic one-time thief Jean Valjean, the hunted, and his first-nameless nemesis Inspector Javert, the hunter.
When first we meet Valjean (James Barbour), the Les Miz protagonist has just spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family. (Talk about the punishment not fitting the crime.) Not long after, Valjean breaks his parole and Javert (Randall Dodge) determines to pursue him to the bitter end.
Valjean later becomes the adoptive father of Cosette (Emilie LaFontaine as a child, Kimberly Hessler as an adult) as a way to compensate for the harm he did her mother Fantine (Cassandra Murphy), unjustly fired from Valjean’s factory and forced into a life of prostitution.
Other major characters include the student revolutionaries Enjolras (Anthony Fedorov) and Marius (Nathanial Irvin), the latter of whom falls in love with Cosette.
Providing comic relief are the Thenardiers (Jeff Skowron and Meeghan Holaway), a couple of lying, cheating innkeepers and their daughter Eponine (Olivia Knox) who as an adult (Valerie Rose Curiel) falls hopelessly in love with Marius.
Completing the large cast of principals is young Gavroche (Jude Mason), the beggar-boy turned child revolutionary, with an additional dozen-and-a-half performers in various supporting roles.
Les Miz is, if nothing else, a really BIG SHOW.
It is also “sung through,” which means that there is almost no spoken dialog, requiring performers who can sing and emote—and emote while singing—and do so throughout Les Miz’s nearly three-hour running time and countless costume changes.
Broadway’s Les Miz and the show’s recent National Tour placed considerable emphasis on spectacle, the former with its famed turntable that seemed never to stop turning, the latter (on Broadway since March of this year) with a gorgeous “you-are-there” projection design.
At La Mirada, with master director Brian Kite in charge, the focus is squarely on telling Jean Valjean’s story. It’s not that scenic designer Cliff Simon’s sets (created for a 2013 production at Austin’s Zach Theatre) are anything less than thoroughly top-drawer. (The barricade sequence looks particularly impressive from both sides of the barricade.) It’s just that this time the accent is less on the spectacular and more on the tale to be told.
Kite’s approach to Les Miz, as it was with La Mirada’s Miss Saigon a couple years back, is to treat Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics (based on Boublil and Nate’s original French text, with additional material by James Fenton) as if they were dialog in a straight play, early rehearsals involving actors’ speaking the words before actually singing them.
The result is as clearly told a Les Misérables as any audience has likely seen, and though there is no “book” per se, this is one sung-through musical production you should have little or no trouble following, even if you’ve never read or seen or heard Hugo’s classic tale in your life.
Of course, none of this would work without a supremely stellar cast, and they don’t come any more stellar than Broadway’s Barbour and rising Southern California star Dodge, and with each towering over castmates at six-and-a-quarter feet in height (and easily able to look each other straight in the eye), the duo make for as equally matched a Valjean-Jovert as any Les Miz has been blessed with.
Baritone Barbour discovers his inner tenor in a vocal performance that may have even Broadway’s toughest critics awarding his musical theater pipes “Best In The Biz” honors, and Dodge (last year’s Scenie-winning San Diego Musical Theatre Star Of The Year) has pretty extraordinary vocal chops as well. Each imbues his character with oceans of depth, and though Barbour’s rendition of “Bring Him Home” earns him the longest, loudest ovation I may ever recall hearing for a single song, Dodge’s “Stars” comes darned close. That each could quite easily play the other’s role makes them an even better-cast pursuer and pursued, equal partners in a duel to the death.
There’s not a more vocally gifted quintet of musical theater performers than those who bring to life Les Miz’s young heroes and lovers. Curiel’s cute, spunky Eponine (“On My Own”), Fedorov’s dynamic Enjolras (“Do You Hear The People Sing?”), Hessler’s exquisite Cosette, Irvin’s Byronic Marius, and Murphy’s heartbreaking Fantine (“I Dreamed A Dream”) are all gloriously sung in addition to being acted with power and emotion, with Barbour, Curiel, Hessler, and Irvin’s “In My Life” and Curiel, Hessler, and Irvin’s “A Heart Full Of Love” proving another gorgeous pair of showstoppers.
A deliciously over-the-top Skowron and Holaway milk every single comic-relief laugh from the Thenardiers. Knox and LaFontaine are both young charmers, the latter shining particularly in “Castle On A Cloud.” As for young Mason and his showstopping “Little People,” you probably haven’t seen a more confident, charismatic, proficient, prize-worth supporting performance from any child actor in years.
Anna Bowen, Stephanie Mieko Cohen, Sarah Combs, Jay Donnell (Montparnasse), Michael Stone Forrest (Bishop of Digne, Babet), Samantha Gayer, Marc Ginsburg (The Foreman, Legles), Christopher Higgins (Combeferre), Stella Kim, Tyler Ledon (Joly), Curt Mega (Courfeyrac), Bruce Merkle (Claquesous, Bamatabois), Amanda Minano, Madison Mitchell (Factory Girl), Dino Nicandros (Prouvaire), Louis Pardo (Feuilly), Cameron Sczempka (Grantaire), Caleb Shaw (Brujon), and Elizabeth Anne Smith are as spectacular an ensemble as any Broadway or nationally touring production could wish for, and no wonder. Each has leading player credits galore. Role (and costume) change after change, this is an ensemble that delivers the acting/singing goods in spades, with special kudos for their harmonies in “Prologue,” “Master Of The House,” “Do You Hear The People Sing,” and “One Day More.”
Though Les Miz is not what you’d call a “dancy” show, choreographer Dana Solimando has found ways to integrate dance into this production, a gorgeous waltz sequence a noteworthy standout.
Musical director John Glaudini has vocal-coached some of the finest song performances you’ll hear all year, in addition to conducting a 13-piece pit orchestra that would do any Broadway theater proud.
In addition to Simon’s sets, Colleen Grady’s costumes (originally designed for Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre) are stunners as well, from 19th-century street (and streetwalker) wear to student revolutionary outfits to the Thenardiers’ delectably excessive garb, and I defy anyone to count the number of costumes in this production. L.A. designers prove equally praiseworthy, from Steven Young’s exquisite lighting to Josh Bessom’s crystal-clear sound (with only a bare minimum of brief mike glitches on opening night) to Katie McCoy’s splendid (if sometimes a tad oversized) wigs, to Terry Hanrahan’s multitude of props.
Casting by Julia Flores once again proves that there is more than enough Southern California talent to make casting out of New York a needless waste of time and dollars.
Buck Mason is general manager and David Cruise technical director. Jill Gold is production stage manager and Lisa Palmire assistant stage manager.
As the previously mentioned Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Miss Saigon, and Peter Pan, the pre-Broadway Jekkyl & Hyde, and the intimately staged Spring Awakening and Floyd Collins have made abundantly clear over the past few years, there’s no finer place to see original productions of Broadway musical hits than the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts, and how’s this for a sensation upcoming season of McCoy Rigby Entertainment musicals: Billy Elliott, Mary Poppins, Carrie, and a brand-new Pride And Prejudice!
In the meantime, there’s no need to travel to NYC to catch Les Miz on Broadway, that is unless you’ve got time and a whole bunch of extra dollars to spare. Les Misérables will be thrilling L.A. and Orange County audiences through June 22, and there’s no more exciting musical theater news around town than that.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
May 31, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont