Massive Review: Les Misérables at the Ahmanson Theatre, June 16, 8:00 PM
Part I: The Production
When I arrived at the Ahmanson, I was both excited and nervous. I adore "Les Mis", I hadn’t seen a professional performance of it since 2007 (not counting the Hollywood Bowl concert), and between the reviews I’d read of the UK Tour and what I’d heard of it on the cast recording, I didn’t know if I’d like the new US Tour or not. I was afraid, (1) that the production would be nothing but kitsch combined with rehash of the original, (2) that the whole thing would feel rushed, (3) that the actors would do too much yelling and screaming, and (4) that they would all make their characters too angry and too modern.
I was pleasantly surprised. First of all, I like the new production. Is it perfect? No. Is it better than the original production? Certainly not. But it’s a very good production, with good set design, good costumes and good staging all around. I’ll describe my thoughts in more detail below. Nor, in my opinion, does it feel like only “a fresh coat of paint.” True, it rehashes some aspects of the original, namely some of the more iconic costumes and blocking, but for the most part, to me at least, it feels very new and inventive. Nor was it rushed (there were plenty of beautiful dramatic pauses), nor was there too much yelling, nor did anyone (in general) seem too angry, and the characterizations felt perfectly “period.” Those were my biggest fears when I arrived and they were all refuted.
Below are my detailed opinions on the performance. Just to let everyone know, I won’t be discussing the orchestrations: that’s Quique’s expertise, not mine, and I didn’t give them much attention. Also, I’m writing this review as much to remember the performance by as to tell you about it, so I’ll be describing production details that most of you already know, either from seeing it yourselves, from other reviews or from the online storyboard. I hope no one minds.Set Design:
The basic set is essentially an altered version of John Napier’s original: a dark brick structure framed by dark wood, with two walls framing the stage. Each wall has a balcony and a space for entrances and exits – the one at stage right has a door, used for the Bishop’s house and later Valjean’s house at Rue Plumet, while the one at stage left contains a tunnel, used for lower-class characters’ entrances and later as the gateway to the sewers. These walls are moveable and occasionally slide together at center stage to create an image of cramped, squalid tenements – this is done in “Look Down” and in “Éponine’s Errand.”
So far so good, but what makes this production distinctive, as we all know from advertisements, the online storyboard, the O2 concert, etc, is its use of film projections based on Victor Hugo’s drawings and paintings. These dusky, moody, impressionistic images of Paris streets, ship riggings, trees, a church, etc, create a stylized atmosphere, while at the same time giving every scene a more concrete location than the original black box did. I love this concept. I’m not saying it’s better than the original, but I love it. It gives the production a look and an atmosphere both unique and entirely appropriate for the story. Granted, the projections in the sewer scene are a little bit showy and melodramatic, in the cinematic way they move and change to convey Valjean’s journey, but that’s my only semi-complaint. Even the occasional surrealistic imagery (as Valjean sings of “the whirlpool of my sin,” a bright red whirlpool appears behind him, and in the final scene Hugo’s painting “Planet” appears as a symbol of Heaven) is surprisingly effective.
The production’s more concrete sense of place means that certain scenes are given settings where my mind had never placed them before. Javert sings “Stars” on the very bridge from which he later leaps to his death – an effective choice. “Every Day” and “Valjean’s Confession” take place in a garden, with Marius and Cosette sitting on a bench – iffier, but not offensive. And the café scene is clearly in a basement room with window grates. By the way, I seem to remember someone (I think it was Orestes) complaining that in this new production, everything from “Look Down” through the “Bring Him Home” all seems to take place in one night – I disagree. The café window grates have enough light streaming through them to make me interpret that scene as a daytime one (granted, Marius sings "Had you been there tonight
," but maybe it takes place just at dawn), and it’s still easy to assume that Act II begins on the following night, not the same night as the end of Act I.
In addition to the projected backdrops, the production also includes wooden staircases, and occasional rickety wooden structures that suggest buildings, e.g. for the Thénardiers’ inn. These slide on and offstage as needed. Big scene changes are handled via two giant sliding walls consisting almost entirely of shuttered windows, which temporarily hide the bulk of the stage from sight. These not only slide, but open like doors at key moments, e.g. for the poor to come streaming out to sing “At the End of the Day,” and to reveal the courtroom in “Who Am I?” All in all, very well thought-out visuals. I was also happy to see various shout-outs to the novel. The factory is, accurately, a jet factory, with all the women sitting at a long table stringing beads; as Valjean and Young Cosette leave the inn, snow falls, evoking the fact that Hugo has him come for her at Christmas; and during “Empty Chairs,” the café has the name Café Musain written on it. Of course there are also a few inaccuracies – the Prologue portraying Valjean as an actual galley slave on a ship; Montreuil-sur-Mer shown as having an active seaport – but even these are moments of artistic license that work well from a theatrical standpoint.Costumes:
As we all know from production photos, a fair amount of of Adrienne Neofitou’s original designs are used (e.g. Javert, Éponine, Enjolras, the Thénardiers in Act I), but there are also plenty of new costumes, and I’ll describe the standouts.
1. Fantine’s first costume is now a slim blue dress with a stripe pattern, which I thought was very pretty and fitting for her character, and her whore outfit is nothing but underwear. She also has her long hair again when she appears as a spirit in the finale.
2. The students generally wear brighter colors, except Grantaire, who wears a shoddy-looking beige overcoat.
3. In addition to the standard working-class costumes, some of the “Turning” women wear wealthy-looking dresses and bonnets. Presumably these women are relatives and/or fiancées of the students.
4. The Thénardiers have new costumes for “Beggars at the Feast” – while I liked Mme. T.’s feather-covered magenta gown, I didn’t care for her husband’s tailcoat with its enormous cartoony collar.
5. As we all know from the O2 concert, Cosette now wears a puffy blue striped dress and is wigged to have long blonde hair like her mother’s. Personally, I like this look. It may not convey her sheltered status the way her original black dress does, but it’s pretty, more period authentic than the black dress, and its lightness and cheerfulness fit with her status as a symbol of hope. Also, her dress’s color and pattern are similar to those of Fantine’s. Combined with the blonde hair, I think this helps the audience remember that she’s Fantine’s daughter and emphasizes that thanks to Valjean’s efforts, she lives the happy life that her mother dreamed of in vain.Staging:
Some people have complained that this production just rehashes the original choreography: I don’t know what they’re talking about. The chain gang blocking is different, “Lovely Ladies” is different, the women’s pay-day line in “At the End of the Day” is gone, as is the conga line in “Beggars at the Feast,” and the staging is full of new ideas and innovations. Yes, some scenes draw on the original (e.g. the “triangle” in “One Day More;” the staging of Valjean’s death), but even then, they only draw on it, not copy it. In every scene I could tell that the directors put real effort into making their production new and different.
Obviously, some of the chief changes come from the fact that this production doesn’t have a revolving stage. “Attack on Rue Plumet,” for example, takes place in the garden rather than outside the gate (the gang picks the lock), and the lack of a moveable barricade alters several key moments. Gavroche’s death is only heard, not shown, and the classic tableau of Enjolras hanging dead from the barricade is replaced by the image of him lying on a cart pulled by a policeman after the barricade has been cleared away. Believe it or not, I liked those changes. Gavroche’s sound-only death at least spares us the bad acting we often see from little boys, and besides, it becomes a great character moment for Grantaire. While all the other rebels are staring over the barricade, watching Gavroche die, Grantaire, who is shown throughout to be the most attached to the boy, stands facing the audience with a look of abject horror and anguish. Then he screams “Noooo!” (melodramatic on the UK cast recording, but with the visuals it actually works) and falls weeping to his knees, while everyone else is silent and motionless. And don’t shoot me, but I didn’t hate Enjolras on the cart. It’s not the classic majestic tableau, but it doesn’t try to be. It emphasizes just what some people have said it does– the tragic disrespect with which the revolutionaries will be regarded after their deaths.
One of my favorite new stagings was “A Heart Full of Love.” It’s the first alternative staging I’ve seen to be just as adorable and poetic as the original. Cosette first appears on her balcony with Marius below, a la Romeo and Juliet. Then she runs away, hence Marius sings “I’m doing everything all wrong,” only for her to suddenly come out through the downstairs door, much to his surprise. Also, I remember one review of the UK tour complaining that Marius and Cosette’s romance was too eroticized: not so here, it felt very chaste. Throughout the song they never even touch, but only slowly approach and circle each other during the last verse, then finally kiss after the final note. Another lovely, poetic moment comes in the final scene: as Fantine and Éponine sing “Take my love…” they and Valjean walk toward the Planet backdrop (Heaven), but then Valjean turns back toward Cosette and Marius to sing “And remember…” and then all three spirits sing “To love another person…” not to each other or to the audience, but to Marius and Cosette. Also, I’m sure Hugophiles will be happy that the Bishop now appears as a spirit in the finale and Valjean bows to him when he sees him.
Another unique moment was the staging of Mme. Thénardier’s verse in “Master of the House.” It was the reverse of the original: instead of Mme. T. addressing to the customers while her husband was busy in the kitchen area, Thénardier was with the customers, regaling them with a story, while Mme T. worked in the kitchen area and sang her verse confidentially to the audience. An interesting choice, which combined with some of the other staging, seemed to offer the idea that Monsieur T. is the purer evil of the two, while his wife is a slightly less nasty figure with whom we might even empathize a bit.
This was just one of several details that made me suspect that the directors set out to make the production as “feminist” as possible. Any male abusers of women (the Foreman, Bamatabois, the two pimps, Thénardier and the gang toward Éponine) are portrayed especially viciously. Éponine’s toughness is almost too much– when Montparnasse gets fresh with her she grabs his arm and hurls him to the ground, martial arts-style. And strong emphasis is placed on Cosette’s blooming womanhood and conflict with Valjean. Twice after he refuses to give her explanations – first in “In My Life,” then, silently, in “One Day More” – she runs away from him into the house, leaving him looking distraught. Valid, but I missed the original production’s emphasis on the love between them, via his bringing out her old doll and their hug during “One Day More.” I was glad that Jenny Latimer played the role as sweetly as she did (and “…I have all that I want…” is reinstated), or I might not have felt like they had a good relationship at all. I did like the way her costumes and hair (worn down in Act I, up in Act II) reflected her maturing process, though.
Yet another thing I like about this production was that all the deaths are staged and acted as realistically as possible. “Come to Me” is such a realistic deathbed scene: Fantine doesn’t get out of bed, doesn’t even raise her head, she just lies there, feebly holding out her hand toward her hallucination of Cosette. Eponine and Valjean’s deaths felt realistic too, as did the deaths on the barricades. The Final Battle isn’t stylized slo-mo, but loud, chaotic and brutal, with lots of flashes, smoke and yelling. The only stylized death is Javert’s suicide, which I’m sure plenty of people will dislike for being more “spectacular” than the original. Javert is suspended in midair as the bridge flies up, then slowly pulled backward “into” the image of swirling water, all the while belting “…OOOOON!” I haven’t quite decided if I consider it effective, hammy, or a little bit of both.
I have to admit, the staging includes a few clunkers. The Confrontation dissolves into slight silliness, with Valjean and Javert effectively playing tug-of-war with a chain brought by the latter, which Valjean finally uses to strangle him into submission rather than threatening him with a chair leg. The staging of “Turning” is fine, with the women leaving candles on the now-empty site of the barricade, but “Empty Chairs,” with the students’ ghosts picking up the candles and with no chairs or tables in sight, felt iffy to me. I’m also sure that some people will complain (though I didn’t mind it) that nearly all the important solos (the Bishop’s “But remember this, my brother…” Grantaire’s verse in “Drink With Me,” etc.) are now placed squarely at center stage, lacking the subtlety of the original blocking. But ultimately none of these details detract from the quality of the production. Much to my surprise, and as much as I love the original, I’m perfectly happy with the fact that this one will be the new “standard” for the next several years.
Part 2 to come later. By the way, I couldn't think of where to fit this in, but the curtain call order has been changed slightly. Marius and Cosette now bow after Fantine and Éponine, which I'm sure some Hugophiles will love.