Lawrence Clayton in Les Miserables.
Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Book by Alain Boubil & Claude Michel-Schonberg
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
Review by Kathi E.B. Ellis
Entire contents copyright © 2011 by Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved.
The 25th Anniversary tour of Les Miserables opened to an almost full house in Whitney Hall at the Kentucky Center for the Arts this past Tuesday (the show plays through Sunday, March 13). For anyone who saw the anemic touring production that marked the 20th anniversary this newly conceived or revised production – depending on whose opinion you listen to – is a considerable improvement.
Gone is the turntable, a staging device that largely defined a couple of generations’ experiences with the production. This version now is framed by walls of decaying screens, which suggest the depths of the poorer arrondissements of Paris. The backdrop is variously still images and moving images, based on Hugo’s own sketches of Paris. These add greatly to the sense of period and evoke most people’s idea of Paris. The moving images mostly work – most effectively in the sewer scene when the audience enters into the illusion of the length of the underground labyrinth, and less successful when the ensemble walks forward as the Paris street lurches backward. The combination of three-dimensional set pieces and the projected images harmonized most during Javert’s ‘Stars’ bringing together a Paris backdrop at night, a bridge over the Seine, and a string of streetlamps.
This is a grittier production than the original staging, and much more robust than the version of that which toured five years ago. The scene in Montreuil-sur-Mer where Fantine sells her hair, her locket and, finally, herself, fully embraces the squalid side of port cities. In the ABC Café the ensemble of students, led by a compelling Enjolras (Jeremy Hays), brings a vigor and exuberance to its planning of the revolution that perfectly sets up the barricades in Act Two. The student ensemble sounds wonderful, both when rallying to the cause and during the more reflective “Drink With Me To Days Gone By”. And, of course, the Thénardiers’ tavern is deliciously seedy and peopled by a wonderfully eclectic group of cons and innocents, led by Thénardier himself (Michael Kostoff) and his spouse (Shawna M. Hamic) both of whom clearly relish the outlandish attitudes and actions of their characters – in bad times and in good times…
It is Javert (Andrew Varela) and Jean Valjean (Lawrence Clayton; Joe Tokarz at some performances) around whom this epic swirls for almost two decades. Mr. Varela’s Javert is an austere and compelling characterization of a man who pursues what he perceives to be right – until he comes face to face with an act of righteousness beyond his comprehension. Mr. Clayton brings an empathy and largeness of spirit to Valjean, which serves him well, though his voice does not always soar at the times when the audience seeks to be transported. Eponine (Chasten Harmon) is passionate and clearly embodies her torment between her love for Marius and helping him find the woman he loves. Jenny Latimer’s Cosette is appropriately innocent and good. Justin Scott Brown as Marius gives us both the idealistic enthusiasm of the student and the more world-weary post-revolution man; the “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” sequence both vocally and in staging evokes the sacrifices personal and political within the story.
Experiencing Les Miserables in March 2011 was an oddly timely experience. Victor Hugo’s story transpires 1815-1832. And yet, with recent events in the Middle East, this story of young students taking to the streets to protest against old and corrupt regimes has a resonance almost two centuries on. On Tuesday it was actors tumbling against the barricades. Outside the theatre, we are seeing students, artists, and many other citizens stepping forward in their quest for new ways of governing. Victor Hugo, I believe, would relish this timeliness of Les Miserables.
March 8 – 13, 2013
PNC Broadway In Louisville
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Kathi E.B. Ellis is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and a member of Lincoln Center and DirectorsLabChicago. She has attended the La MaMa Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding southern artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for South Florida theatre’s Carbonell Award. Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and part of ShoeString Productions, an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.