A twenty-year wait for the rights to the international phenomenon that is Boublil And Schönberg’s Les Misérables pays off at long last for Musical Theatre West in an absolutely spectacular big-stage, big-cast, big-budget production that gives Broadway a run for its money.
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 (Michael Hunsaker), 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 (Davis Gaines) determines to pursue him to the bitter end.
Valjean later becomes the adoptive father of Cosette (Emilie LaFontaine as a child, Madison Claire Parks 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 (Steve Czarnecki) and Marius (Devin Archer), the latter of whom falls in love with Cosette.
Providing comic relief are the Thenardiers (Norman Large and Ruth Williamson), a couple of lying, cheating innkeepers and their daughter Eponine (Tessa Barkley) who as an adult (Emily Martin) falls hopelessly in love with Marius.
Completing the large cast of principals is young Gavroche (Garrett McQuaid), 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 original Les Miz and the show’s 25th-anniversary 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 last year) with a gorgeous “you-are-there” projection design.
Musical Theatre West’s approach, while still spectacular both in look and in execution, eschews turntable and projections for a relatively simpler design (accent on relatively), since Paul Black’s sensational lighting design (with its ample use of stage haze) makes Cliff Simon’s impressive sets (created for a 2013 production at Austin’s Zach Theatre and debuted locally last year at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts), costume designer Karen St. Pierre’s stunning 18th-century garb, and Anna Mantz’s array of period props look as dazzling as in any MTW show I can recall.
Out-of-town director-choreographer DJ Salisbury makes his Southern California debut with Les Miz, and a most impressive one it is. Not only does Salisbury manage as really-big a show as really-big shows get, he does so with impeccable attention to detail, to character, and to storytelling, and though Les Miz is not what you’d call a “dancy” show, Salisbury has found ways to integrate dance movements, in particular an Act Two ballroom sequence that is quite lovely indeed.
Kurt Alger’s wig design is elegant when elegance is needed and unkempt when needs be, and sound designers Brian Hsieh and John Nobori insure that Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics (based on Boublil and Nate’s original French text, with additional material by James Fenton) are heard crystal clear above the Broadway-caliber pit orchestra conducted by another East Coast import, Andrew Bryan.
Les Misérables may have no “book” per se, but fear not, with a cast as brilliant as the mostly L.A.-based one assembled on the Carpenter Center stage, this is one sung-through 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.
SoCal visitor Hunsaker joins MTW staple Gaines in bringing a pair of truly iconic characters to powerful, gorgeously sung life, the former’s deeply-moving “Bring Him Home” and the latter’s equally gripping “Stars” both earning deserved audience cheers.
Supporting performances simply could not be better, or more beautifully sung than Murphy’s deeply touching Fantine (“I Dreamed A Dream”), Martin’s pretty, plucky Eponine (“On My Own”), Szarnecki’s charismatic Enjolras (“Do You Hear The People Sing?”), or Archer’s handsome, passionate Marius, with Parks’ heaven-sent Cosette showcasing the most glorious soprano you may ever hear in musical theater, shown off to perfection in “In My Life” and “A Heart Full Of Love.”
On the opposite end of the “decades of stage credits” spectrum are pre-teens McQuaid (a terrifically spunky, “Little People”-singing Gavroche) and the equally impressive LaFontaine (flip-flopping with the adorable Barkley in the roles of Young Cosette and Young Eponine), whose “Castle On A Cloud” showcases her impressively budding soprano.
Ensemble members get the vocal/acting workout of several shows put together, Anthony Carillo (Feuilly), Samantha Cashmore, Elizabeth Eden, Natalie Stewart Elder, Chaz Feuerstine (Joly), Joshua Taylor Hamilton (Factory Foreman, Brujon, Loud Hailer), Olivia Hernandez, Ashley Ruth Jones (Factory Girl), Matt Kriger (Courfeyrac), Brandi Lacy, Travis Leland (Jean Prouvaire), Katie McConaughy, Sergio Pasquariello (Combeferre), William Peltzer (Montparnasse), Lance Smith (Lesgles), Shannon Stoeke (Bishop Of Digne, Babet), Jeffrey Christopher Todd (Bamatabois, Claquesous), Chandler Truelove-Pearis, and Nick Tubbs (Grantaire) doing so to rival any Broadway bunch in role/costume change after change, with special kudos for their harmonies in “Prologue,” “Master Of The House,” “Do You Hear The People Sing,” and “One Day More.”
Kelly Marie Pate is stage manager and Art Brickman assistant stage manager. Kevin Clowes is technical director.
It’s rare that SoCal audiences get to experience a show during while it is still running on Broadway (the 2014 revival is approaching its 500th performance), a fact that gives MTW’s L.A. County Premiere even greater event status. Not surprisingly, there are already sold-out performances, and justifiably so. This is musical theater at its most spectacular indeed.
Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
April 11, 2015
Photos: Caught in the Moment Photography