Finally, a week after seeing the thing (c'est la vie)...
Part 2: The CastJ. Mark McVey (Jean Valjean):
An outstanding Valjean and my favorite performer of the night. His voice was excellent for the role: not perfect, a tiny bit husky in places and with a few pinched-sounding notes, but still a classic, gripping Valjean tenor. His “Bring Him Home” was absolutely beautiful, filled with both sweetness and passion, and his “Who Am I?” and “Soliloquy” were also first-rate. As for his acting, he had me engaged from beginning to end. His performance was full of feeling and testified to his more than twenty years of experience with the role.
His “Prologue” Valjean was such an angry, vicious presence – a brooding, fearsome convict through and through. Yet at the same time he conveyed hints of downtrodden vulnerability (this may have been partly due to his distinctively shaped lips, which naturally give him a bit of a “sad puppy” look) that never took away from his passionate bitterness. Then, when the Bishop gave him the candlesticks, he looked so confused, then tormented, and then launched into a “Soliloquy” that contained the full, compelling range of emotions it should: anguish, anger, turmoil, determination, and lots of remorseful tears (someone clearly remembered the importance that Hugo places on Valjean’s tears at this point, because he was sobbing, on and off, all the way from the Bishop’s “I have bought your soul for God” through “I am reaching but I fall…”). Such a refreshing change from Alfie Boe’s one-dimensionally angry rendition in the O2 concert!
One thing I especially liked about his Valjean was the way he treated Javert. While other Valjeans have been constantly angry with him, Mark’s Valjean, however he may have felt inside, always tried to be civil and reason with him. His “I will see it done!” in “Fantine’s Arrest” was stern but not shouted, and apart from the standard outburst of temper during the barricade release scene, he was only aggressive toward him when he needed to be. I didn’t think this made him too much of a “plaster saint,” though, because when he needed to be aggressive, he held nothing back, and because of the aforementioned release scene. He not only shoved Javert against the wall, as is standard, but seemed to struggle to admit, “You’ve done your duty, nothing more.” For people who like Valjean to be humble, though, he also seemed to convey a hint of inner struggle on “I’m a man, no worse than any man,” as if he only half believed his own words.
His interactions with Cosette I was worried about, because of the overly angry slant the UK tour apparently put on their relationship. But fortunately, that slant seems to have only partly carried over to the US. He was stern during “In My Life,” but didn’t overdo it, and made it clear how truly distressed he was by her imploring and the pain he knew his refusal was causing her. While the musical can never equal the novel in conveying the depth of his love for her, Mark conveyed it just as well as any other stage Valjean, if not better.
His death was perfect. He was so weak, he was almost immobile, and conveyed all the emotion the scene requires. He never overacted or underacted. Of all the Valjeans I’ve seen, I think he’s taken John Owen Jones’ place as my second favorite, ranking just behind Randal Keith. A sterling performance!Andrew Varela (Javert)
: Another great singer and actor. I’ll admit, he was less physically imposing than the ideal Javert might be, but he presented both fine vocals and a vivid, interesting characterization.
Of all the Javerts I’ve seen, Andrew was the first to really convey a sense of growing obsession with recapturing Valjean. He started out as a very calm, coldly stern officer. While certainly not kind, he wasn’t especially cruel to Valjean in the Prologue, he just treated him with the indifferent disdain he would have given to any other convict. He didn’t even hold his nightstick to Valjean’s face at the end of their exchange: an underling did it instead. As far as I remember, he continued this detached approach through the Montreuil-sur-Mer scenes. But then, during the Confrontation, something seemed to snap. The revelation that the Mayor was Valjean all along (and then to be physically subdued by him in such a frightening, humiliating way) seemed too much for him, and at the end of the scene he really tried to brutally beat him. From then on, this Javert was a man obsessed. His “Stars” wasn’t a firm, staunch statement of belief, but almost shaky, as if after years of failure in his mission, he was almost desperately looking to the stars as proof that “mine is the way of the Lord,” as a reassuring symbol of what “must be.”
I’ve never gotten the same sense of obsession from any other Javert – nor is it quite true to Hugo’s Javert, whose fixation on Valjean has, of course, been greatly exaggerated in the public imagination. But it’s a valid interpretation for the stage and I give kudos to Andrew for conveying it so effectively. At any rate, it led perfectly to his utter breakdown when Valjean spared his life at the barricade. In their final confrontation his broken state was obvious, try though he did to hide it, and his suicide soliloquy was a flood (no pun intended) of turmoil. Even “Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief!” was more desperate than fierce – he was a shattered being. This Javert is one I won’t soon forget.Betsy Morgan (Fantine):
She was a good Fantine. Not necessarily a great one, but not a mediocre one either: a good one. Her voice I’d describe as similar to Lea Salonga’s, but with just a hint of Daphne Rubin-Vega-like edge, in keeping with the current trend of edgier-voiced Fantines. Her “I Dreamed a Dream” was very pretty and emotional, though possibly because of her voice quality, I couldn’t always tell if she was expressing anguish, anger, or both.
She played a delicate, vulnerable Fantine, very quiet, well behaved and eager to avoid trouble during the factory scene rather than letting herself get angry (the fight with the Factory Girl was purely self-defense). This characterization carried through to “Lovely Ladies.” As a whore she was staggering drunk and broken-down, but more mournful and less bitter than others have been. I might have liked to see her show a little more passion and strength, but she was still effective.
One interesting detail of her performance that seemed to be direction-based: until her arrest scene she never really seemed sick. She did none of the coughing and staggering that other Fantines do. But after her struggle with Bamatabois, during which he gave her a horrific kick in the side, things changed. After scratching him she fell down, blood coming from her mouth
(they didn’t skimp on blood in this scene – Bamatabois cheek was saturated), and spent the rest of the scene desperately weak, clearly in grave condition. It seems like the new directors wanted to give her a more concrete cause of death than an unspecified illness, so instead Bamatabois’ kick apparently does some internal damage that kills her. Anyway, her “Come to Me” was beautiful, very soft, weak and gentle. As Fantines go, she certainly can’t surpass Lea or Ruthie Henshall, but she was still good enough for me.Michael Kostroff (Thénardier):
Another excellent performer, whose previous experience with Les Mis seemed to benefit his performance. I remember reviews of the UK tour complaining that in this production the Thénardiers were “glorified clowns”: I didn’t get that sense here, at least not as much as I thought I might. Michael was funny, but he wasn’t a ham. I was surprised by how effectively restrained the Waltz of Treachery was: neither he nor his wife pretended to sob at the news of Fantine’s death, but only exchanged a “Drat, there goes the money!” expression, and he only uttered a few fake sobs over Cosette’s departure. His ever-so-slightly larger-than-life delivery of the words (and the words themselves) got all the necessary laughs. And I thought he perfectly conveyed Thénardier’s dark side. The last passage of “Dog Eats Dog” was one big brazen sneer at the audience, the world and the concept of God, capped off with a perfect evil laugh. A great job.Shawna M. Hamic (Mme. Thénardier):
A quintessential Mme. T: big, belty, nasty and funny. She was the perfect match for her husband. They came across as equal partners in crime and struck a good balance between bickering and moments of something resembling affection. And yes, she tries to seduce Valjean during the Bargain scene, but I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think it fits perfectly well with the musical’s comic conception of her character and it got a good laugh from the audience. A flawless performance, as far as I’m concerned.Justin Scott Brown (Marius)
: Another good performance: not bad, not great, not mediocre, just good. He had a very nice voice, less thin and boyish than some other recent Marii, though obviously not Michael Ball territory, and his acting was solid. He was a classically youthful, innocent Marius: as a revolutionary a confused, naïve follower who needed Enjolras’s guidance, and as a lover both exuberant and adorably awkward at the beginning. He also had a strong, fiery streak, though (yes, he and Enjolras have The Fight before Gavroche’s death), and did a good job of conveying his divided loyalties between his friends and Cosette. I like the new staging of the end of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” in which rather than instantly run off with Éponine to Rue Plumet, he briefly holds back, clearly debating whether to leave his friends at such a key moment or not.
His relationship with Éponine started out well enough. He was polite but not buddy-buddy. Then, as she helped him find Cosette, he started showing her more affection (kissing her cheek, picking her up and twirling her around) out of sheer exuberance and gratitude. So far so good. But then came “A Little Fall of Rain.” After she died he sobbed uncontrollably. Even after she was carried away, he spent the whole following scene weeping on his knees, until the battle started and Enjolras made him get up. I just don’t know if I like that or not. A few years ago I would have loved it (I’m a sucker for sensitive men and I was once naïve enough to think that Eppybopper angstfics represented his character accurately), but now I feel like it’s out of character, especially since Justin didn’t really establish a warm friendship with her. I think I need time to contemplate it.
One interesting detail of his performance was that while “wounded,” he made it clearer that he was still alive than any other Marius I’ve seen. He took an especially long time to lose consciousness after being shot (I think he was still writhing even as Enjolras was killed) and while unconscious he did quite a few coughs and small movements. I suspect that either he or the directors were concerned that the audience might think Marius was dead and be confused when he reappeared later, so they decided to make it obvious that he was alive.
His “Empty Chairs” was strong and passionate. A little bit on the angry side, but in a way that worked with the new staging – on the last verse he looks around at his friends’ ghosts and shouts “…DON’T ASK ME!” like “How dare you die on me without achieving anything?!” and the ghosts all scatter away, except Enjolras, who slowly withdraws. All in all, I’ve seen better Marii (he can’t take Adam Jacobs’s place as my favorite), but he filled the role well.Jeremy Hays (Enjolras):
Perfect casting. Tall, handsome, curly blond hair, a striking stage presence and a warm, powerful, almost operatic voice. True, he’s a little bit wirier than I imagine Hugo’s Enjolras being, but the physical beauty that Hugo describes is hard for any actor to equal. And dramatically, he was spot-on. A natural leader, impassioned, authoritative, aloof yet caring (his long, numb stare into the distance after Gavroche’s death was very memorable) and dignified. He reminded me of what videos I’ve seen of Anthony Warlow, except with better hair.
Unfortunately, this production isn’t entirely free from the specter of “Enjolras and co. as naïve and pre-doomed/Grantaire as voice of reality.” Grantaire glares at Enjolras at center stage after Éponine’s death, and later directs his “Drink With Me” verse directly to Enjolras in an angry way, leaving Enjolras standing in deep, troubled thought which I could only interpret as him questioning whether Grantaire is right or not. The fact that we last see his mortal remains being hauled like garbage on a cart rather than sprawled majestically on the barricade doesn’t make matters any better. But of course, none of this is Jeremy’s fault. He gave an excellent performance and I wouldn’t mind seeing him again some time.Chasten Harmon (Éponine):
A solid Éponine, better than some I’ve seen, though less outstanding than others. Her voice was warm, clear and incredibly powerful: a little R&B-ish now and then (and yes, she did a jazzy riff on “I’ve only been pretending”) but I expected that in advance. Acting-wise, she was strong and refreshingly un-cute. She spent her time constantly trying to get Marius’s attention, but in a brash, sassy, tomboyish way, not in a flirty way. It was vaguely reminiscent of Celia Keenan-Bolger on Broadway, but without the broken-down, almost crazed quality that characterized her. She (or the directors) also found some original ways to deliver specific lines. Rather than be gloomy, horrified or angry on “No, I don’t want your money, sir,” she laughed it off, which I’d never seen before but which worked. Then, when she agreed to find Cosette, she took the money, only to angrily throw it away as soon as Marius was gone.
Her “On My Own” was full of power and passion. She opted to sing it angrily, but still managed to convey inner pain (on “...there’s a way for us!” she tried to be stubborn, but it was weak, as if she didn’t really believe it), and ended the song very softly and sadly. Her death was even better, with outstanding pain and weakness. Hugophiles will be glad to know that she neither kissed nor even tried to kiss Marius’s lips at the end, and that instead, Marius followed the novel and kissed her lifeless forehead (what he did after that, though… not so novel-accurate). Hers was another performance that I’d place in the “good” file.Jenny Latimer (Cosette):
Yet another good performance. She looked pretty, sang with a pretty soprano voice, and offered fine acting. I’ve seen Cosettes who brought more depth to the role (e.g. in “A Heart Full of Love” she was instantly ecstatically happy, with no initial fear or awkwardness), but I know I've seen flatter, blander ones too. I especially appreciated how sweet she was toward Valjean. She was very tender on “In my life I have all that I want…” (so glad those lines are back!), her “I’m no longer a child” was imploring, not angry, and when she ran into the house after failing to get an answer, she was crying, not sulking. In a production that emphasized her and Papa’s conflicting priorities, I was glad to see her still come across as such a sweet daughter. And good Lord, the final scene! Quique once complained that so many Cosettes mechanically go through the motions at Valjean’s death – not Jenny. She spent the whole scene crying her heart out, and when he finally died, she crumbled in grief, not even turning to Marius until the spirits were singing “Take my hand…” It was very human and very emotional. Kudos to her!Anastasia Korbal (Young Cosette):
An appropriately sweet little girl. Her voice was on the squeaky side, but I didn’t mind. I was just glad she didn’t try to belt the role. She also did an especially good acting job during the Waltz of Treachery, seeming truly terrified when the Thénardiers fondled her.Ethan Paul Khusidman (Gavroche):
A decent, average Gavroche: small, squeaky-voiced, spunky and an applause-magnet without being especially memorable. I think I’ve been spoiled by the fantastic Gavroches in the Broadway revival. Otherwise, maybe I would have liked him more than I did.Joseph Spieldenner (Grantaire):
Yet another good performer who didn’t quite display the depth of character he could have. Don’t get me wrong: he was a strong, memorable presence. He was very boisterous and funny in the café scene, and was passionate in “Drink With Me,” initially angry and accusing toward Enjolras, but then dissolving into tears at the end (this cast did a lot of crying!). But in the wake of seeing such excellent Grantaires as Michael Minarik and Don Brewer on Broadway, I felt like there was something missing from his performance. I didn’t get a strong sense of how he felt about Enjolras (beyond a sense of blame combined with vague devotion) or what exactly motivated him to run onto the barricade after him in the final battle. The best aspect of his performance was his constant interaction with Gavroche. He and the boy were obviously very close and he was shattered by his death. When they all reappeared as spirits, I was happier that Grantaire was with Gavroche in Heaven than that he and Enjolras had made peace. I liked him, but his characterization could use a little bit of fine-tuning.
The ensemble was strong all around. Standouts were Benjamin Magnuson’s warm, smiling Bishop, Richard Todd Adams’s vicious Foreman and John Rapson’s half vicious, half spoiled and sniveling Bamatabois. I think Quique will be happy to know that the final “Do You Hear the People Sing?” chorus was not “happy, chummy” in the least. It was impassioned, sweaty and exalted, like it should be.
Overall, I’d give this performance a 7 or a 7½ out of 10. The cast was generally good (less than great, better than mediocre), with a handful of great performances mixed in, and while the production wasn’t the original, it was good enough for my taste. And the majority of the audience obviously loved it. I went with a friend who had never seen the show before and she adored every moment, and at the very end there was a standing ovation, just as Les Mis nearly always receives. I wouldn’t rank this performance as high as the great ones I saw in London and New York, but I'd definitely rank it on the same level as the last performance I saw from the 3rd National Tour at the Pantages in 2006. Anyone who loves Les Mis and is spending this summer in the LA area should waste no time: see this production!