Does it strike you as somehow – well, decadent – to have a sumptuous meal of shrimp, Caesar salad, chicken, pork and roast beef, topped with a generous ice cream sundae preparatory to watching a musical – a musical! – about starving people in 19th century France? If not, you ought to go see Toby Dinner Theatre’s swell production of Les Misérables, in which the agonies of an entire nation serve as a backdrop for one police inspector’s obsessive 17-year chase after a man who stole a loaf of bread.
The bread thief, of course, is the immortal Jean Valjean (sung with amazing brio by Daniel Felton) and the inspector is the great Javert (Toby’s veteran Lawrence Munsey, in full, powerful voice).
Victor Hugo’s 250-year-old novel is a story about injustice, or at least lack of proportionality: Valjean is sentenced to five years’ hard labor for breaking into someone’s house and stealing a loaf of bread, and gets fourteen years’ hard labor for trying to escape. Finally released, he is forced to show his convict letters to all, thus assuring that he will be an outcast to society.
The compassion of a Bishop (Andrew Horn, good in this and other roles) allows him to assume a false identity, and in it to become a social and financial success. This escape from the law’s retributory reach, however, enrages Javert, and he is never far behind. These themes resonate with us today, notwithstanding that we still do basically the same things as the French did in 1815 (a man was recently sentenced to life imprisonment for stealing batteries under a three-strikes-and-you’re-out statute).
Les Misérables is not an opera, for technical reasons, but you may find it easier to think of it as one. I heard one spoken line of dialogue – the street urchin Gavroche (the most excellent TJ Langston; Jace Franco also plays the role) announcing the death of a revered political figure – but the rest was sung; and Les Mis is as broad and emotionally manipulative as The Barber of Seville.
It is as full of high moral purpose, unsubtle tropes, coincidence and epic villainy as anything Wagner ever dreamed up. Valjean befriends Fantine (Janine Sunday), a woman forced by circumstances to become a prostitute and arrested by Javert at the special instance of the corrupt foreman (David Bosely-Reynolds). Thereafter, Valjean adopts Fantine’s daughter Cosette (the charming Ella Boodin as a child – Caroline Otchet also plays her – and Katie Heidbreder as an adult) by buying her off the comic villains, the Thenardiers (David James and Theresa Cunningham). Years later, Cosette captures the eye of the student Marius (Jeffrey S. Shankle), who falls in love with her instantly and thereafter employs Eponine (MaryKate Brouillet) – who happens to be the Thenardiers’ daughter, and who is in love with Marius – in a successful effort to get Cosette to reciprocate. Throughout, Javert lurks. Finally, Marius and his fellow students, led by Enjolras (Ben Lurye) man – and occasionally woman – the Parisian barricades, in a futile effort to strike a better deal for the poor.
They are joined by Valjean and also by Javert, who is of course there in his police-spy capacity. Shooting, deaths, heroics and a wedding follow, and eventually Valjean is in his final moments, and all the friends and admirers who preceded him in death are there to welcome him and sing his praises. (Not to give anything away, but this scene is set in 1832 so most of the characters are pretty much dead by now anyway.)
In other words, there are a dozen places where you can cry out, “Wait! What?” (Francis King of the London Sunday Telegraph called it “a lurid Victorian melodrama produced with Victorian lavishness” when it was first produced) but if you do you will spoil your fun. Les Mis has the ethos of opera: big music, big voices, big emotions, big themes.
That it is done in Toby’s tiny playing space – five hundred squares or so, big enough for maybe ten steam-tables – makes it all the more amazing. Put up the white flag and surrender to it; allow yourself to revel in the gorgeous Claude-Michel Schonberg music, orchestrated with great skill by Christopher Youstra, and sung beautifully and with great authority by an exceptionally strong twenty-four actor cast.
Any production of Les Mis rises and falls with the quality of the two leads, and it is hard to imagine actors better suited to the roles than Felton and Munsey. Jean Valjean is a man who constantly seeks to escape his miserable past, and Felton’s sweet, pure, powerful tenor voice seems like it is trying to escape his body, and carry his soul with it. Javert, on the other hand, is a human monument to the virtues of rigidity and conformity, and so is Munsey in the role.
Both his muttonchops and his super-tight uniforms (David Gregory and Shannon M. Maddox did the costume design; the wigs are uncredited) show us that this is a man in a box of his own design and choosing, and Munsey’s powerful baritone seems amplified by the power of the state Javert has embraced.
Closes November 10, 2013
Toby’s Dinner Theatre – Columbia
5900 Synmphony Woods Road
2 hours, 55 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $60 – $65 (includes dinner or brunch)
Wednesdays thru Sundays
A few words about scenic designer David Hopkins’ set: it’s imaginative, and it does the trick. For much of the play, the set is, wisely, no set at all: we see Jean Valjean eating with the Bishop, running his factory, at the hospital with Fantine, and so on, without benefit of physical set, and accordingly rely on our imaginations. When our imaginations are insufficient to the task – when, for example, we are on the barricades, or afterwards, in the sewers of Paris – Hopkins uses wheeled cages, long and slender, and, somehow, they do the trick.
Youstra and sound designer Drew Dedrick are as clever – and subversive – as Hopkins. They hide their magic behind second-story walls thus make themselves as inconspicuous as possible.
OK, most dinner theaters won’t feature the two-hour, fifty-five minute Les Mis, with all its death and sorrow (and its 24-member cast) as the punctuation after a full meal. But then again, most dinner theaters don’t win Helen Hayes awards. Do yourself a favor, buy a ticket, switch off the brainbox, eat some dinner, and enjoy yourself at Toby’s Les Mis.
Housekeeping Note: The canons of ethics require that I acknowledge that John Dellaporta, who is in the ensemble of this production, is a colleague of mine at DCTS (he writes the fabulous “Slings and Arrows” column). This has not affected the objectivity of my review.
Les Miserables, Adapted by Alain Boublil from the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo, with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer . Directed by Toby Orenstein and Steven Fleming . Featuring Daniel Felton, Lawrence B. Munsey, Andrew Horn, Janine Sunday, David Bosley-Reynolds, Ella Boodin (Caroline Otchet also plays), David James, Theresa Cunningham, TJ Langston (Jace Franco also plays), MaryKate Brouillet, Katie Heidbreder, Ben Lurye, Jeffrey S. Shankle, Tobias Young, Nick Lehan, Ben Gibson, John Dellaporta, Christopher Harris, Will Emory, Heather Marie Beck, Jane C. Boyle, Coby Kay Callahan, Dayne Marie Quincy, and Lara Zinn. Set design by David A. Hopkins (who also served as technical director), costume design by David Gregory and Shannon M. Maddox, lighting design by Lynn Joslin, sound design by Drew Dedrick, Vickie S. Johnson, Movement Coach. Jimmy Engelkemier was the stage manager. . Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia . Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Eddie Applefeld . Baltimore Post-Examiner
Mike Giuliano . Baltimore Sun/Columbia
Roman Gusso . ShowBizRadio
Mary Johnson . Baltimore Sun
Mark Beachy . MDTheatreGuide
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts