During 1832, Victor Hugo heard a commotion a few blocks away. He went to the street to find that he was bordered inside the barricades of the June Rebellion. Ducking behind some pillars, into a doorway, he spent a half hour or so, hiding from the bullets of the French army and rebels on either side of the barricade. When the barrage ended, the army moved on, leaving bodies of the rebels strewn about the street. The June Rebellion would last only a few weeks. It might have been forgotten among the hundred years of French revolutions and rebellions in the 18th and 19th centuries. But, Victor Hugo constructed a historic novel, Les Miserables, 30 years later. He wove together the stories of the Parisians whose lives came together at those barricades. A hundred plus years later, Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, and Herbert Kretzmer brought the key characters and events to Broadway with Les Mis, the musical. Some 30 years on, the McCoy Grand Theatre reconstructed those events for our small town.
Hugo expansively chronicled in Les Miserables the stories of Jean Valjean, who was paroled from prison after 19 years of labor, Fantine, who asks Valjean to care for her daughter, Cosette, who captures the eye of a republican-leaning rebel, Marius. You can see the trajectory is toward the barricades. Les Mis consolidates 20 plus years of narrative into 3 hours of musical theatre. Expect to jump right into the plot, and extrapolate the politic background, while keeping track of, Inspector Javert, an obsessive police officer, Enjolras, an idealistic rebellion leader, Monsiuer and Madame Thenardier, the sociopathic tavern owners, Garvoche, the street-urchin child who really runs the neighborhood. If that does not keep you dizzy, the women of the factory and the streets, the laboring and gentry men, soldiers, republican rebels, et al. will make you wonder where this cast of thousands is hiding in the wings.
After abandoning his name and past, which is oppressed by his convict status, Jean Valjean becomes a middle-class factory owner. Unknown to Valjean, Fantine who worked at his factory, is sent to the streets because she rebuffs the lecherous advances of the Constable. The prostitutes quickly snare her for employment, which leads to her death. Valjean takes her into his arms, when he finds her cast out on the street. He makes and keep his oath to find her daughter, Cosette, whom he takes and raises as his own daughter. This requires paying off M. & M. Thenardier, who had helped Fantie by taking in Cosette as a tavern servant.
Don’t blink, for a scene later, she has matured a dozen years. Cosette left the stage a darling girl in rags, and returns, yowza! a full grown beauty, in a blue gown that could make you forget the oppression of the prior factory and street scenes. Maruis, of course, also gets his head spinning, between M. & M. Thenardier’s matured daughter, Eponine, who desires him, and Cosette, whom he desires. Being a clueless man, he elicits Eponine to find out who Cosette is. Being a hopeful woman, Eponine carries out her charge, her means of staying close to Marius.
You can anticipate that Eponine will die at the barricades attending to Marius’ interests. You can anticipate that Marius will carrying her blood into the battle and add his blood through his wounds. Valjean finds him and carries him to safety through the streets and gutters, to unite him with Cosette. Valjean will also show Inspector Javert the mercy that he never received to be set free. You can anticipate more deaths, reunions in death, and justice through dying and living.
Compliments to the stars of the show must be prefaced with compliments to the Ensemble who fill out the scenes from the opening prison yard to the closing wedding dance. While I recognize a number of the Ensemble from prior McCoy Grand productions, several new faces preformed well. Forgive me for not being able to name all. (Leave a comment to tell me if you can identify who they are)
The lanky, young man with red hair (Hunter Ayers) timed his movements well, whether wielding a sledge-hammer in unison with the other inmates doing hard labor, or palling around with other sailors in the tavern, or loading rifles on the barricade. The young man who is the lookout from the window (Talon Gilbert) did an excellent job of keeping the rebels and us informed of what he could see from his vantage point. He even died well when he stepped out from behind a door and in front of a bullet. The young woman in the factory (Makayla Baker) who taunted Fantine, about the letter in which the Constable propositions her, can certainly be nasty (I’m sure she is not in person). Derek Barr, as the Constable, can be pretty nasty too (I’m sure he doesn’t run his Human Resources department that way).
Lauren Gresham and James Alt performed a variety of workers, rebels, and gentry, expanding their skill at character development. Being able to consistently carry out several roles in a single evening enhances the leading players performances. Blake Shockey demonstrated improved vocal control and singing range through several characters in the various Ensemble groups. By name and face association, I would say that Kimberly Smith (my sources have suggested this might be Danielle Slocum) is the sister of Cati Smith, whom we saw in a number of productions a few years back. Now forget coat-tails here, Kimberly stands on her own. If I were to make an association, I’d go with a young Angela Lansbury. Yowza! There’s a beauty present, but watch for the vixen behind the smile, like Ms Lansbury in State of the Union with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (hint, this was a stage play before it was made into a movie).
Among these Ensemble characters Jean Valjean (Lester Collins) mingles. Mr. Collins has his task set out to cover 20 years of Valjean’s life, laboring in the prison, to running a factory, to rearing Cosette, to rescuing a man trapped under a cart, to escaping numerous time from Inspector Javert, to rescuing Marius. Yet, with all this heavy lifting, he has the gentlest of hand with Cosette and amazed us with hitting those high notes in critical scenes.
Rick Bowbly stands towering over the stage as Inspector Jarvet. Persistent and determined are understatements. He is in complete control even to his last pistol shot. Yet, he adheres to the law, when the Bishop of Digne (Steve Smith) denies that Valjean has stolen silver from the church, or when the rebels reveal his disguise behind the barricades and take him as a prisoner.
Matthew Wright fills the stage without needing to tower, in his role of Gavroche. He may be the smallest man on street, but he knows and will tell you that he is the most important. He runs the neighborhood. And, whenever he pops out from behind a doorway, or the crowd, or a sewer grate, he will let you know that he is there. He even does the best job of dying from the French army’s snipers… and there is a lot of dying to come after he is gone. A friend who joined us for the evening informed us that he spotted Matthew was the acolyte at the Epiphany Catholic Church on Sunday morning. Maybe he really does run this town!?
Enjolras (Adam Leatherman) leads the republicans in trying to take Paris. His determination and persistence are aimed at gaining freedom for the citizens who labor with little reward. Adam’s energy becomes the driving force for the intellectuals and the workers to resist the apathy that hopelessness engenders.
Marius (Ben Smith) is one of the intellectuals who will join Enjolras and the rebels at the barricades. Ben portrays compassion which is stimulated and insulated by the books that he reads. When Eponine (Sarah Widder) expresses her interest, he informs her of what he is learning, but looks past her, oblivious. Ben and Sarah carry out these interactions convincingly. When Eponine returns to the barricade wounded and dying, their parting song evokes a pathos that will be multiplied with each dying rebel in the upcoming scenes.
Eponine and Cosette are portrayed as children (Elizabeth Alt, and Catherine Maher, respectively) and women just come of age (Sarah, and Heather Foster, respectively). In each scene they are linked by others, but displaying different traits. Young Eponie is prim and proper, dressed and displayed like a prized doll by her parents M. & M. Thenardier. Young Cosette is humble, in her plain working close, broom and bucket. Until Valjean secures her future, she can only hope for long hours of work and isolation. Elizabeth and Catherine carry themselves with confidence in their different situations. Such confidence is needed for Catherine to stand alone on stage, in the spotlight, to singer her solo.
Epinone and Cosette continued to be linked through Marius’ attraction. Cosette has grown to be confident in her position of a middle class young woman, ready for suitors. Eponine no longer has the stylish clothes, but she has the confidence to navigate the streets to find Cosette for Marius. Heather’s beauty is deeper than the superficial draping of colorful dresses and curled hair. Heather possesses a tenderness in her eye, which is keenest when wedding Marius and embracing Valjean as he dies. Sarah displays a different beauty. Hers is that of loyalty. Her eyes are clear, seeing, and knowing. Her voice is also clear, whether whispering her sadness to herself, or declaring her joy at dying in Marius’ arms.
Les Mis is a demanding lyrical piece for the performers. Few of the cast can slip by with spoken word songs, as all of the dialogue is sung. We are continually impressed with the musical skills of the casts at the McCoy Grand’s productions. While some of the cast may have musical backgrounds and ranges of training, most work with their inherent talents. Regardless of training or talent, the result is pleasing. While Sarah’s voice touched my ear, we shall not forget Emily Sherman’s portrayal of Fantine. Her scenes are relatively brief in the first act. But, her part demands much of her vocal range, style, and sensitivity. Emily fulfilled all of these. For those brief scenes in the factory and street, I cannot image that anyone in the audience looked or heard anyone other than her.
If I stopped here, I might give you the impression that Les Mis were a Verdi opera, with death, suffering, agony from the opening to the final scene. To lighten up the Ensemble and the lead characters are Monsieur (Jesse Cook) and Madame Thenardier (Heather Throne). As the inn and tavern keepers, they take in all who seek a place to rest, recreate, and rebel. But, they are not supporters of anyone other than themselves. They will water down your wine, while picking your pocket. Cook’s every look and gesture are flamboyant distractions which allow him to weasel his way a sailor’s pocket, a gentleman’s purse, and a dead rebel’s mouth (for the gold fillings). Heather will aid Cook with her own eye catching roll of her hips and bosom. She can pucker hip lips and wink, while Cook is counting the coins that he has lifted. And, how could anyone miss that wild hair. My friend reminded me at intermission that this red hair wound into two buns like horns, was similar to that of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeny Todd.. that reminded me that I saw Sweeny Todd on Broadway… with Angela Landsbury. Yowza! (hint, great Halloween show for 2014).
Republicanism is about individual liberty through group action. A musical as large as Les Mis requires the whole cast and crew working together. The solos and duets could not occur without Keith Miller’s directing, Heather Thorne’s music directing, and Kirsten Barr’s dance coaching. With the sound track running, the cast had to move precisely to be on cue, while carrying out their business to fill out the scenes. From every hammer fall of the opening prison scene, to the banter in the taverns, to the rebels’ deaths on the barricades, to the waltz at the wedding party, the cast learned from their directors.
As I mentioned early on the Ensemble gives the sense of a cast of thousands for the number of groups they portray. This presents a challenge for creating a stage that can set the action, and costumes to represent their status. Keith Miller, Heath Hershberger, Layne Miller, and Jack McCullough frame the stage with a symmetric series of doors, side entrances, and central stairs. Painting the flats with dark, neutral browns, allows them to function for streets, factories, taverns, and ballrooms. A few benches and tables give seating areas in the tavern, and form the barricades on the streets. Having basic staging allows for quick changes between scenes, which is important for productions with sound tracks rolling.
More complicated were Amy Maher’s and Jane Slocum’s costumes. Not only did they have to generate a lot of different looks for the cast, but they had to have many of these changed quickly between exits and entrances. I envisioned that back stage must have looked like the changing rooms of a clothing store on Black Friday.
To illuminate and amplify the sets, costumes, and players Eric Vidischak, Boris Pribudic, and Megan Collins organized the lights, spot lights, and sound. Their work is more subtle, for they run the technical aspects with a balance that we should not be attending to, for they direct us to who is the key performer in each scene.
As the curtain call ended with the cast finishing their encore and bows, we realize that the house lights have come up. Rather than disappearing into the wings the cast came down the aisles. Family and friends greeted them with cheers and hugs. As we filed from our row, I notice that Fantine stood in the aisle just in front of us. I nodded to my friend, who had raved about her at intermission… “Here’s your chance… Give her a hug.” We blushed and slithered up the aisle. But, who was coming toward… Angela Lansbury. Yowza!