Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Based on a novel by Victor Hugo
Original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel . Additional material by James Fenton
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Produced by Signature Theeatre
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
Cameron Mackintosh tossed Eric Schaeffer the keys to his hummer Les Misérables to drive the internationally-acclaimed musical juggernaut from its recent multi-million dollar Broadway home to the intimate, black-box theatre here in Arlington. Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables is a essentially a political economy treatise masquerading as a romantic melodrama occurring during one of the several French revolutions. (The Les Mis paperback you will find in a bookstore rack in the airport is likely to be hundreds of pages shy of the original, much to the chagrin of the areas policy wonks.)
This production is lavish. The epic musical is re-scaled and framed by an environmental staging which uses nearly every corner of the theatre as well as from floor to ceiling; it is designed to place the audience in the Thénardier tavern, on the boulevards of Digne, Montreuil-Sur-Mer, and Montfermeil, and behind the barricades in Paris. Walt Spangler twists five tons of cold black steel to impressive effect, making of the structures an elaborate puzzle box which can – in seemingly every direction – propel the action swiftly from scene to scene. Lighting designer Mark Lanks could produce light form a black hole, it would seem. Everywhere in the theatre he finds a reference point for a source of light to frame the action. And he melds lighting effects with Spangler’s set in stunning ways. Each mood and every emotion is heavily influenced by Lanks’ lighting. Equally key in evoking the period are Kathleen Geldard’s costumes which are boldly representational in ways which also reinforce the mood. She lavishes equal attention on paupers and whores as she does on student revolutionaries and the upper classes. If you juxtapose Cosette’s wedding dress against Madame Thénardier’s ball gown, you will get a glimpse into Geldard’s wild creativity.
I don’t know the process by which Spangler, Lanks and Geldard contributed their talents to the production, but they have succeeded in stealing the show as surely as if they had conspired to do so. Their work is visually sumptuous, each scene a Delacroix tableau.
The production also boasts a 14-piece orchestra under the musical direction of Jon Kalbfleisch which makes beautiful music, rich and lush and never overwhelming the voices.
At the head of the cast are Greg Stone (Jean Valjean) and Tom Zemon (Javert), both veterans of the Broadway production. Each brings a polished professionalism, remaining essentially faithful to the Broadway interpretations. Where the environmental staging succeeds greatest is in showcasing the supporting characters and ensemble. A chorus of male voices open the show with the “Chain Gang” song and which captures the grit and despair of the world we are about to enter for the next three hours. Aaron Reeder’s rich, warm voice perfectly captures the compassion of the Bishop of Digne, whose gift of silver (part of which Valjean attempts to flee with) helps Valjean prosper after 19 years of prison labor for stealing a loaf of bread. Local favorite Eleasha Gamble lends her gorgeous voice to a variety of ensemble roles. Sheri Edelen (five time Helen Hayes Award nominee; winner for Signature’s Side Show) and Christopher Bloch are comically unsavory as the Thénardiers — their bawdy rendition of “Master of the House” shines with Karma Camp’s intricate and witty choreography. AJ Breivik is a very spunky Gavroche, a pint-sized revolutionary with big ambitions. He’s very assured in the role and delights the audience.
The young leads are a major asset here as well. No one uses the staging as brilliantly as Felicia Curry (Eponine). She sings “On My Own” with such freshness and immediacy I felt as though I was hearing it for the first time. Tracy Lynn Olivera (Fantine) brings out all the dashed hopes and sorrow her character has experienced with a beautiful rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Stephanie Waters and Andrew Call are well matched as young lovers Cosette, ward of Valjean, and student activist Marius.
Signature’s Les Misérables reminds me of the recent London-to-Broadway transfer of Sunday in the Park with George: visually stunning and technical perfection but lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. It does, for the most part, push the right emotion buttons and there was nary a dry eye in the audience at the finale. Musical theatre fans will definitely appreciate quality of the production and the caliber of the cast.
Running Time: 2:55 with 1 intermission
When: Thru Jan 25. Tues & Wed at 7:30 pm, Thurs, Fri & Sat at 8 pm; Sun at 7 pm with matinees Sat & Sun at 2 pm. Special holiday performances: Mon & Tues (Dec 22, 23, 29 & 30) at 8 pm, and Mon, Jan 9 at 7:30 pm.
Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA
Tickets: $75 – $87. Ticket specials and discounted children’s tickets available. Visit the website, or call the box office: 703 820-9771.