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.