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Audiences do not seem ready to give up Les Misérables just yet. Thousands of performances on Broadway and the West End, franchises touring the globe for a generation, a televised concert version, even high-school shows since 2002—and still the public appetite for this Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schönberg pop opera remains unsated.
Witness the fact that Signature Theatre’s downsized-but-still-decently elephantine production announced a monthlong extension mere hours after its opening night. This, despite the besiegement of local audiences by red-flag-waving touring companies for more than two decades, starting with a pre-Broadway tryout at the KenCen in 1987 and ending with a stand at Wolf Trap barely six months ago.
The draw this time, you may have heard, is supposed to be intimacy. If close quarters could turn Sondheim’s Broadway flop Passion into a smash for Signature, just imagine what a less gargantuan staging might do for the already throbbing passions of Jean Valjean and his revolutionary brethren. Director Eric Schaeffer has made a specialty of uncovering hidden veins of emotion in problematic musicals; let him now bring a Signature flair to the signature moments of a show that actually works—reimagining that marching wedge for the Act One finale, the flying bridge for Javert’s suicide, the barricade that emerges, Transformer-like, from the wings.
Sure, Les Miz is a chestnut—not the edgy sort of choice Signature generally makes—but then, ’tis the season for chestnut-roasting, no? Small wonder tickets have been scarce. Still, if you haven’t secured yours yet, don’t beat yourself up too strenuously. There will, you can rest assured, be more intriguing Les Mizes to come.
Which is not to suggest that this one doesn’t have its strengths. In most respects, the show works much as it always has, and often, it does so with grace. Three of the cast’s principals have played their parts on Broadway—Greg Stone’s amply impassioned Valjean, Tom Zemon’s almost over-fierce Inspector Javert, and Stephanie Waters’ sweet Cosette—and if they’re not noticeably stronger than other cast members, that speaks well for such Signature stalwarts as Tracy Lynn Olivera (a robustly consumptive Fantine), Sherri L. Edelen and Christopher Bloch (crasser than crass as the low-life Thenardiers), and Andrew Call (a passionate Marius). It’s reasonable to question the theatrical appropriateness of the gospel-inflected pop styling that Felicia Curry brings to Eponine’s “On My Own” (Curry does it as Whitney Houston might, complete with a mid-syllable hiccup on big notes), but Eponines have been treating the song as a pop standard for too long to make that battle worth fighting.
With only a few exceptions, the vocals are fine, and if the orchestra, led capably by Jon Kalbfleisch, sounds synthesizer-heavy, that’s also been true of Les Miz’s touring companies for a while.
Where the show announces its difference is in visuals that present themselves the moment you enter an already darkened auditorium. A rear wall of smudged and shattered windowpanes turns the space into what looks like a 19th-century warehouse. At the center of a broad thrust stage, designer
Walt Spangler has placed a metal grid that can be lifted high in the air, and around that grid he’s dangled the production’s most striking design element: a profusion of shiny black chairs.
Jean Valjean and his prison work gang will hoist those chairs on pulleys in the opening prison scene (which does not look like particularly onerous work) and then, oddly enough, will leave them hanging in the air for the duration. You figure chairs might come in handy when it’s time to build a barricade, but no. They stay floating there for the better part of two hours, until Mark Lanks’ lighting spotlights them during the song “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables.” As a unifying device, this is a trifle flimsy—and ignores that the first scene is supposed to establish Valjean’s Herculean strength so that Javert can recognize him later (shouldn’t he be hoisting at least a Barcalounger?)—but give the director his concept.
As for those reimagined hallmark Miz moments, Schaeffer’s substitutions are effective if unshowy. For “One Day More,” in place of the original’s red-flag-waving, marching-on-a-turntable triangle of student revolutionaries, he gives us a red-armband-waving diamond of stationary student revolutionaries. In Act Two, the barricade slides on from the rear, rather than twisting on from the sides. And Javert’s suicide? We’ll let that one be a surprise.
Throw in some attractive lighting effects—a wall glowing white, blue, and red when major characters die, underlights from the sewers of Paris casting eerie shadows—and you have a sturdy, perfectly serviceable Les Misérables. Goosebump-inducing? Not for me, though I’ll concede that those melodies, relentless anthemic earworms all, still pursued me to the parking lot to rattle around in my head for one day more.