FresnoBeehive.com

Pop culture, entertainment & all things Fresno

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Les Miserables’

CEK LESMIZ-3.JPG

People are gushing about Children’s Musical Theaterworks’ new production of “Les Miserables,” and rightly so. It’s an accomplished, smart looking, well sung and hard-working show. Director Skyler Gray delivers a gritty interpretation of the classic musical that tries some sparkling things visually while retaining many of the iconic moments that fans have come to know and love.

But during intermission on opening night, I heard a man being just a little critical of the show. The voices were really nice, he said, but they were just a little too young.

It’s an interesting observation, and I thought I’d address it right off.

On one hand, the original creators of “Les Mis” 25 years ago opted to frame the whole thing as a heavy-duty opera-style event, complete with challenging vocals that call for mostly mature adult singers. That’s great for such characters as Jean Valjean and Javert, who boom out big-voiced songs that call for incredible power, range, and expertly controlled falsetto.

On the other hand, think of all the characters in “Les Miserables” who ARE as young as the 16-20 year-old performers at CMT. Think of the grown-up Cosette and Eponine, of Marius, of all those student rebels. It’s become common convention for actors much older than those characters to play the roles. (There’s a reason why “Forbidden Broadway,” the show that annually made fun of Broadway shows, called “Les Mis” the “only show with its own pension plan.”)

Do you give up a little something in terms of powerhouse mature vocals with a youth production of “Les Mis”? Yes. But do you gain something in terms of youthful zest and dedication? Oh, yes. And I think that’s the best part of seeing the CMT version. When those rebels up there on stage give their lives during the barricade scenes, you really feel the ache of lost youth.

The show is double cast in the principal roles. That’s a testament to the amount of young theatrical talent locally, but it’s always been hard for me because it’s hard to offer an assessment of the entire cast without seeing two full productions in one weekend. (I’m dedicated. But not that dedicated.) And because “Les Miserables” is considered children’s theater, I don’t single out individual performances for negative criticism.

That said, at the “Red Cast” performance I attended, all the principals had strong moments, including Isaac Ellis as Javert, Kelsey Sutton as Fantine, Bryce Moser as Enjolras, Amber Lewis as Cosette, Trent Dahlin as Marius and Kenny Beatty as Gavroche.

Any good “Les Mis” needs a great Thenardier and Madame Thenardier, and Jordan Laemmlen and Megan Rupe displayed their deft comic timing in the pivotal roles. Their “Master of the House” was a brisk showstopper.

I was especially taken, too, with Miguel Molinar’s Valjean. In his director’s notes, Gray mentions how he sees this as “memory play” for Valjean — a less naturalistic take on the tale than is normally presented, and a concept that I like very much — and I really felt as if Molinar had a strong connection to the premise.

Lastly, I felt a strong emotional bond with Catriona Fray as Eponine, who offered not only the role’s trademark husky sentimentality but also a spark and swagger that spilled over recorded musical accompaniment.

Chris Mangels’ unit set, which folds up, swings around and hooks into itself to create various scenes, works well at times — there’s a fantastic moment at Javert’s suicide — but seemed to crowd the actors in the ensemble scenes. And the barricade scenes seemed somewhat static to me — probably because we don’t get to see the “other” side. (Gavroche’s death scene is pretty much lost, alas.) Overall, I’ve seen Gray create stronger visuals and have more assured blocking in other productions. In fact, some key moments lost impact because of awkward staging. (Eponine’s death scene was blocked from view by a big, annoying trunk for half the theater.)

The sound design had its issues, as is often the case with CMT, and many of the lighting cues were sloppy on opening night. I thought Bonnie Franklin’s costume design was terrific, all the way from the over-the-top garishness of Madame Thenardier’s wedding dress to the simple rags of the convicts. (Update: Debora Bolen designed the character’s distinctive wig.)

But enough quibbling. It’s amazing that CMT is able to get a production this complex and ambitious up with so much success. The raves I’m getting from readers agree. Larry Beston writes:

The performance of Les Miserables on Saturday afternoon was wonderful. The singing and the acting performances were all at a high level of performance. Other than some technical problems with sound glitches early on, there was not a single negative to comment on. Only positives. My wife and I were and still are, hours after the performance ended, amazed at the acting and singing talents of these young people. The future is so bright for so many of them; and for so many of us here in Fresno that look forward to another performance.

I wholeheartedly agree.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Les Miserables’"

Heather Parish says:

I’m greatly looking forward to seeing it on Friday night!

*btw, though, the set designer’s name is Chris Mangels, not mangles. ;-)

Donald Munro says:

Thanks for the heads up on the spelling, Heather. I will make the change. The program has his name misspelled.

Stephen says:

I haven’t seen it yet (this weekend for me), but this is EXACTLY what I’ve been pushing for in these posts and other posts for years. I kept whining about the ‘good ol’ days’ of Joel Abels, who took the best of talent from the Valley and the most challenging of shows and staged them bravely and with great success.

Skyler Gray is cut from the same cloth. I mean, really, who DOES Les Miz in a children’s theater?!?

And who does it at age 12? (or whatever Skyler is, I know it’s something like that).

Gigantic kudos to CMT for picking up Skyler, but even more unlimited kudos for allowing him to truly be the artistic director, choosing the shows he wants to do and showcasing the talent as only he (and Joel) can.

Best part for me? This will be the first time I’ve ever seen Les Miz (I know, I know…). But it sounds like it’s going to be a great first experience for me.

Brian says:

When I saw this production I was amazed from the moment that I walked in (what an awesome silent “overture”) to the last note from the most talented cast I have seen in Fresno theater. I saw Les Miserables touring a few years back and this production is on par with it. The shows are almost sold out from opening night (550 seat theater) through last weekend so get your tickets for this weekends performances or you will miss out on a truly unbelievable theater experience.

Haley says:

I have been lucky enough to see both performances of the show, and I have to say I can’t pick my favorite cast! They both have incredible standouts and I urge everyone to see both if possible.

The level of talent that Skyler was able to gather is mind-blowing, and the production value sets the bar very high for the rest of the valley theater companies.

As for the “annoying trunk” blocking a little fall of rain, I heard from a cast member that this was not blocked by Gray, and was an unfortunate miscalculation on the part of both cast and crew. Basically they missed their mark in the dark. And sure enough, the next time I saw it the scene did not take place behind a box!

I’m going to see it again this weekend, I would regret it if I didn’t see this production as much as possible!

Barry says:

CMT’s Les Mis is a stunning show. I’ve see both casts and they each do magnificent work. Unfortunately, the Bee’s theatre review is a review of half a show since the reviewer won’t review the entire show. So sad for the kids who expend the same amount of effort and are ignored, but that’s the way I guess it works. Oh well. That’s the way it works, kids.

Yes, Barry, unfortunately that is the way it works. There is way too much theater in this town for one reviewer to handle. There are undoubtedly shows running now or soon that won’t get a review from Donald at all. The amount of ink Les Mis has gotten in the past week from Donald Munro is considerable. So a glowing review for an overall production with half the cast is a good thing.

The real alternative for the cast of CMT is to stop double casting and have each of those ignored performers have to truly duke it out for the major roles and then be relegated to supporting or ensemble roles. Then the whole cast could be seen and reviewed. What’s better? For the entire cast to be reviewed or for as many talented students as possible to get a chance to fully perform amazing roles?

Barryt says:

I’m sure that CMT is thrilled with double casting because it boosts ticket sales (double the grandmas, double he fun).

Ka-Ching.

And the ink spread all over Les Mis has been wonderful, deserved, and an example of journalism’s symbiosis with performing arts. No review equals paltry woe of mouth ticket sales.

Ka-Ching.

Those associated with CMT are noticeably grateful for whatever coverage in the media is tossed at then. No matter how wonderful a show may be, if people don’t come, the bills aren’t paid. CMT needs Donald Munro in the same way Donald Munro needs things to review. It works well for both.

Ka-Ching.

If one is expecting an indictment from CMT people over the Fresno Bee review of half a show, it isn’t gonna come. If one is expecting CMT to single cast, that isn’t gonna happen, either.

My whole point is that it is appropriate for media to report the staging of a show. It is inappropriate to dig into performances of half the show and pretend the other half doesn’t exist.

It is glib for the reporter to write that he lacks dedication to do a complete job.

It is expected that CMT will soak up good press and do anything to keep the good press coming (that whole symbiosis thing again). They are going to stay mum in this issue because of he fear they won’t get any review. Half a review is better (ka-ching) than NO review.

And lastly, the Fresno Bee, news giant that it is, needs to ensure that the arts scene is covered completely. If one person can’t do it, than it hires an additional reporter.

After all, it’s a matter of dedication.

I am sure CMT’s use of double, or even triple, casting will be embraced by CMT

Mike Oz says:

If anything is glib, I’d say it’s trying to paint Donald as not having the dedication to do the job. He obviously does. Just look around and read his many, many reviews, plus interviews and features. But you’re probably not talking about THOSE, are you? I’d be willing to bet someone a taco that you’re just related to someone in the second cast and TOTALLY taking this too far. So glib? Yeah, I’d say the best example in this thread is your comments.

Barry says:

No, I’m actually not related to anyone in either cast, tech crew, or ticket taker. And the more I think about it, it IS appropriate for someone to review half a show. Matter of fact, my favorite reviews are those of half a museum opening, half a television show, half a concert, and the first half of the Academy Awards!

It appears my viewpoint has upset people. Must have struck a nerve.

For that, I’m sor

(I guess that’s half an apology.)

Barry says:

Mike, Mike, Mike! It appears I have caused some anger here. Am I related to anyone involved with CMT or Les Mis? Nope. Did I feel it was glib for Donald to write that he is not that dedicated? I did think so, however you may be unaware that I was repeating his words from his review.

I should not have expressed my opinion regarding reviewing half a cast. The practice will continue. And it is obvious I have upset you.

The more I think about it, the more I realize it was silly. Por ejemplo (can I have my taco, now?) my favorite reviews are those of half a concert, half a museum exhibit, half of the Academy Awards, and the back half of a movie.

I am not a bad person for sharing my view and Donald is not a bad person for writing about half a show.

For your hurt feelings, I am very sor

(I guess that’s half an apology, but it was visually entertaining and well worth seeing.

Amelia Ryan says:

There seems to be some confusion of the purpose of a newspaper review of a local production. The review is not primarily intended for the people in the show and their friends and family. The primary purpose is to inform the theatre-going public about the shows that are playing and to give them some idea of what to expect so they can decide for themselves what to see and what to avoid. It’s not the critic’s responsibility to mention everybody in the cast. (A kind-hearted reviewer, particularly of amateur theatre, will say more about the good performances than the bad ones.) A secondary purpose of the review is to give the people involved in the production(not just the performers) an informed response to their work so that they are not only hearing what they want to hear from family and friends. My daughter played several leading roles in CMT productions–if her cast was reviewed, fine, if not, also fine. To moan about being ignored because you don’t get mentioned in the only daily newspaper in town–in an amateur production, no less–is silly. Double casting is a great way to give kids more experience; no one is entitled to get their names in the newspaper in every show they’re in.

Mike Oz says:

You haven’t upset. I’m just sticking up for my co-worker, who I know is very DEDICATED to what he does.

Joe says:

Donald,

Thanks for reviewing our shows and also thanks for putting up with the ongoing drama of double casting. Each cast knows in advance that one cast will be reviewed it’s just the way it is…

In a professional setting if an understudy went on would it be expected that the reviewer go back and re-review the show because the person cast as the lead was not able to perform that day? Was there a request sent to you by the Wicked production team to review the show a second time when several roles were played by understudies? We all know the answer…No.

The benefits of double casting outweigh the drawbacks without a doubt…to suggest that you Donald are lazy by only reviewing the show once is Ludacris! Thank you for your dedication to making our art known.

All the Best,

Joe Wettstead
Board President – CMT

Barryj says:

My last comment. Really.

Never did I use the word lazy in reference to Donald.

If the purpose of a theatre review is to alert potential audiences about the worth (or not) of a particular show, than if seems to me that reviewing 50 percent of potential ticket sales is, for a consumer, not helpful.

I don’t know any of these kids. I wouldn’t recognize them in the lobby if they weren’t in costume. Obviously being in a cast doesn’t mean getting your name in the paper. If it did, what about all of the ensemble memberswho rarely experience this.

My whole purpose in sharing my view arose after seeing both casts and being surprised that four shows of performers were covered and four shows weren’t.
It is, to me, wrong. It is simply my view as a theatre goer.
If there is that much theatre that needs covering and there isn’t time enough to cover it, than the Bee needs to expand it’s staff.

Donald Munro says:

Barry,

You seem to be asking some serious questions here, not just trolling, so I’ll address a few points:

1. There’s no easy solution when it comes to the issue of double-cast shows, but one thing to keep in mind is this: The two “casts” do not provide two fundamentally different shows. The direction, sets, lighting design, costumes — and the entire acting ensemble — remain the same. Those playing the principal roles do change. Does seeing a cast with one Valjean provide a completely different experience than with another? No. The impact in that role might be different, but the production itself is larger than any one character.

2. You act as if I am flouting some journalistic convention by basing my review upon seeing one of the casts. This isn’t true. Even The New York Times, which has the most ambitiously staffed culture section in the country, regularly reviews plays and operas that are double-cast after a single performance. True, most Broadway shows don’t double-cast all the principals, but they often do double-cast the younger performers. It’s also common for Broadway shows with a powerhouse leading role to have the “star” play the part six performances a week and have an understudy regularly play the roles at the Wednesday/Saturday matinees. In those cases, the Times critic notes the fact that the role is double-cast and then moves on.

3. We are talking here about children’s theater (albeit with up to 20-year-old performers). Theater reviewing is relative depending upon the nature of the production. I approach professional theater much differently (and with much higher expectations) than community theater. And I approach children’s theater differently than community theater performed by adults. In the case of CMT, I don’t offer negative critiques of individual young performers, a fact that I explained in my “Les Mis” review. My focus is more on the production itself, particularly the direction, design and impact. My decision to “pull my punches” when it comes to young performers makes the issue you’re complaining about even less relevant.

4. It’s actually a little endearing that you feel so passionately about the production — and that you have such a strong sense of entitlement when it comes to what your local newspaper “owes” you. Keep in mind, however, that there are real-world factors at work. Our staffing levels have been dramatically impacted by the economic downturn. We have to make hard choices all the time about what to cover. In a perfect world, yes, my job would be to write full-time about theater and cover the heck out of that beat. However, considering that I’m also responsible for covering classical music, visual arts, opera, dance and pretty much anything else that falls into the cultural-arts category, that isn’t going to happen.