IF YOU GO
What: Epic story about unrest and revolts among the Parisian peasantry
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 12-Thursday, March 14; 8 p.m. Friday, March 15; 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, March 16; 1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sunday, March 17
Where: Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, 13350 Edison Parkway, Fort Myers
Cost: $55, $65, $80, $95
Information: Call 481-4849 or go to bbmannpah.com
Something Else: Parking is sometimes chaotic because of evening classes at Edison College. Park farther out and escape the after-show traffic jams.
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
Let's get to the point. "Les Miserables" is back in Southwest Florida for the second time in fifteen months, playing through March 17 at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers.
Will you like it?
Because Tuesday's opening night crowd went absolutely nuts. Two curtain calls and almost no one ran screaming for the exits as if Inspector Javert was hot on their heels waiting to toss them into the Bastile. If the seats don't empty during bows, you know the folks in the 239 have got some major love for what's on stage.
Both the production that played in January 2012 at the Naples Philharmonic and the current show are part of the 25th anniversary tour of "Les Miserables." Several cast members, including Andrew Varela (Javert) and Shawna Hamic (Madame Thenardier) are still part of the touring company. The show features new orchestrations, towering sets that transport you into the stifling streets of Paris and three-dimensional projections inspired by original paintings from Victor Hugo.
"Les Miserables," if you don't know, is the story of paroled convict Jean Valjean and other citizens during a period of student uprisings in France. The show tackles religion, law, justice, poverty and many more social issues. Claude-Michel Schonberg's music and Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics combine in stunning, deeply felt songs like "I Dreamed a Dream," "On My Own" and "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables."
Reaction to the show will depend entirely on how you feel about the music.
I think of "Les Miserables" as a grand, operatic show, with outsize personalities singing huge, emotionally laden songs about enormous problems. The music seems to lend itself to that, with the thundering sweeps of "One Day More" or the delicate, wistful tones of Cosette's "Castle on a Cloud" lament.
Now, the flip side of that - the show can potentially feel like a five-hour marathon as everyone enunciates. Ev-er-y. Syl-la-ble. Of. Every. Word. Of. Every. Song. You get the point.
Tuesday was a revelation. I felt like I was watching "Les Mis" after buying the cast a few rounds of Red Bull and topping that off with a triple espresso. The music seemed faster. The actors didn't linger over scenes. Only on the real show-stoppers did vocalists stretch for every octave in their (sometimes limited) range. The show scampers through the streets of Paris with all due alacrity; a three-hour musical was over in a snap.
I feel as if the show flies by so fast all emotion vanishes from the stage. Only the strongest actors, voices and scenes cut through the dark clutter to connect; scenic design takes the "wretched poor" brief to excess. The unrelenting pace feels as if "Les Mis" were reduced to mere spectacle, bereft of intensity and emotion.
Tuesday's audience obviously didn't feel the same way.
Lockyer, who sang the role of Marius on Broadway for six years, brings a more youthful, edgy and feral take to Valjean. "Bring Him Home," Valjean's towering number at the barricade as he pleads with God for the life of Marius, arrives not in an operatic blast, but in a wistful, desperate siren song of prayer. I love the quieter, more subdued, plaintive feel this gives to the show.
Varela offers a brooding, moody Javert, although the reconfigured production takes some of the menace from the part itself. His towering "Soliloquy," delivered just before a leap into the unknown, stretches his amazing voice and fills every cranny of the hall with sound. The scene makes gorgeous use of the projections and technology, allowing Javert to simply jump and disappear into the blackness as audiences applaud the scene and the song.
Briana Carlson-Goodman brings star power to her Eponine. Scenes, such as the Thenardier attack on Valjean's house and Eponine's shooting at the barricade, deliver emotional punch. "On My Own" proves her one of the few performers able to command the stage with just her presence and voice. Devin Ilaw brings a fresh-faced quality to Marius; "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" delivers vocally, but I wish the show paused just long enough to let the moment sink in.
Timothy Gulan (Thenardier) and Hamic work overtime to dish up an over-the-top helping of boisterous energy as the crooked innkeepers. "Master of the House" loses some of the angry, biting cruelty; the number feels fresher, faster and far more humorous than a year ago. Look for the moment when Hamic takes a cleaver to a baguette after the "thinks he's such a lover" lyric. Gents. If you see the ostensible Baroness du Thenard with a knife in her hand - run!
French-Canadian Genevieve LeClerc might have the toughest job in show business right now, trying to put a fresh spin on Fantine. Susan Boyle (remember her?) sang "I Dreamed A Dream" and captivated the world; Anne Hathaway won an Oscar. Most people in the audience have heard the song; no matter who sings it, it probably won't be sung the way you first heard it. LeClerc does bring a desperate fragility to her Fantine that doesn't always come through on stage.
I wish the show could put all the pieces together - in every scene - all the time. It doesn't. It can't. To me, it feels as if the tour bus is double-parked and the cast is racing through every song, scene and speech to get out of the theatre and on to the next stop down the road.
"Les Miserables" contains good, even great moments, particularly the majestic and overpowering ensemble pieces like "Do You Hear the People Sing," "At the End of the Day" and brilliant curtain number "One Day More." I just don't think this production connects the scenes and plot threads with any skill. The events on stage don't mean anything - and fall short of getting the audience truly involved in the show - because spectacle triumphs over storytelling.
I'm more than willing to be a minority of one. I didn't respond positively when everyone around me did. The show arrives stocked with a talented and professional cast, stunningly beautiful sets, rich costumes and gasp-inducing technology. Lockyer and Varela can sing the house down. This is a bold new take on "Les Miserables." One thing you won't be is "miserable."
"At the end of the day you're another day older." Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.