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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Les Miserables’

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Fresno Grand Opera reaches for the stars with its ambitious new production of “Les Miserables.” And those stars can be magnificent, from the dramatic night sky accompanying Javert’s famed existential crisis to the impressive cast of Broadway and national tour veterans brought together for the leading roles.

Strong visuals, achieved by scenery originally built for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and a series of projections designed by Zachary Borovay that recreate the streets and moods of early 19th Century France with an inky, muted, watercolor-style impressionism, are wonderful. And strong vocals — from both the principals and the big stage ensemble, many of whom are locals — add to the material’s operatic scope. (The show runs through Sunday.)

Still, opening night at the Saroyan Theatre was a little wobbly. Most of the glitches were tiny, including missed lighting cues (particularly from the follow spot) and occasional microphone problems. (At one point, in the song “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” I thought I heard backstage chatter coming through the sound system for a brief moment.) Those wobbles made a difference, however, chipping away at the confidence of the production.

There were other issues: At times the orchestra overpowered the ensemble singers. (At intermission, the usual Saroyan sound complaints were floating through the crowd, including that people couldn’t understand the lyrics. I think it’s at least partly a “Les Miz” thing — it’s one of those shows you have to know pretty well beforehand if you want a reasonable level of comprehension.) And even with the fancy projections, which included occasional animation, some of the big production numbers just didn’t measure up to versions I’ve seen before, most notably “One Day More,” which seemed less rabble-rousing and more sloppy.

I’m torn between sheer admiration for the production’s ambition and a little disappointment that I wasn’t able to connect with it as much as I wanted. I don’t want to ignore so much that is good about the show. In the all-important department of emotional intensity, however, I just wasn’t as gripped by this “Les Miz” as some others I’ve seen, some locally.

Some thoughts:

– The principal cast members are uniformly strong, no surprise considering their credentials. (All were recruited either from the original Broadway company or the most recent national tour. And two of them, Max Quinlan, as Marius in this production, and Jason Forbach, as Enjolras, are going as ensemble members directly to the new Broadway revival opening in March.) That said, three really stand out for me. Peter Lockyer is a younger, earthier, somehow less imposing Jean Valjean than I’ve normally seen him played, and his plaintive “Bring Him Home” — truly sung as a whispered prayer, not a rafter-raising torch song — is spectacular. I was strongly drawn to Andrew Varela’s Javert, whom he portrays in later years with an almost wistfully stiff, arthritic sense of insecurity. And Briana Carlson-Gooodman is as good an Eponine as I’ve ever seen.

– Limuel Forgey, who played Javert in a local Visalia production last year, is a standout local performer as the Bishop of Digne.

– I miss the turntable. Perhaps it’s become theater cliche after all these years, but the legendary “Les Miserables” turntable from Broadway fame and the original national tour helped create a number of spectacular visual moments that can’t be topped in this production. (The turntable version visited the Saroyan Theatre several times in the 1990s, but it was dropped in the new national tour of the show — and, in fact, was banned when community theater productions got the rights to perform the material.) Without the turntable, the barricade scenes, especially, lose a sense of awe and grandeur.

– The use of the curtain was distracting. Perhaps it was just the Saroyan’s curtain, which seems to lower with an audible thud. Fantine (wonderfully voiced by Susan Spencer Varela)” and then Eponine get dragged out in front of the curtain for their big vocal moments instead getting to fill the big stage with their big songs. My least favorite “curtain moment”: In Marius’ beautifully voiced “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” first the curtain is raised to reveal the ghosts of his fallen comrades, forever frozen, with John Demous’ excellent lighting delineating their motionless forms. Those lights fade, exquisitely and achingly, but then, womp, the curtain thuds down again. Talk about a mood breaker.

– Conductor Brad Haak, a veteran of the national tour, is really, really good. Not only did he keep the pit orchestra in great shape after a few vocal baubles, but the orchestrations really just seemed to, well, sing.

All in all, Fresno Grand Opera put its heart into this “Les Miz,” and as the nearly three-hour production barreled ahead on Friday night, the impact got stronger. All those voices come together in the finale in a big, gorgeous swelling of sound that mirrors the show’s themes of love, loss and the perseverance of the human spirit. As the glitches subside, I have no doubt the final three performances will stir thousands more this weekend at the Saroyan.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Les Miserables’"

Brynn says:

I first saw Les Miserables when I was five years old during the first national tour (1990) in San Francisco. I have seen it somewhere around 11 or 12 times (I’ve lost count) and last night’s performance was one of the better productions I’ve seen in recent years; including the most recent national tour. I expected there to be some flaws because it was the first night but it didn’t take away from the show for me. There were some directional choices I could have done without (the curtain was one of them but without tracks or turn table you kind of needed it for set changes) but I absolutely loved that we got to see Gavroache’s death and Enjoras hanging from the barricade.Both of those elements were removed from the tour.Like you stated, I miss the turn table as well.I know it’s “outdated” but it’s a part of Les Mis and they should bring it back. The voices were amazing and Eponine was superb. She really brought out the book version of Eponine and I loved it. I would definitely recommend this show especially for first timers. If I could, I would LOVE to see it again this weekend.

Bob says:

Donald, your review is spot on.

My opinion, as witnessed from the balcony, is that the sound was the biggest offender. The orchestra often overpowered a single voice, but blended well with the ensemble. Too many times microphones failed on important solo parts. Too bad, the voices deserved more.

Also, the lighting too often failed a soloist. There were times I was looking for the source of the singing.

In general, I thought Friday evening’s performance was a dress / tech rehearsal more than an opening night, and that thought takes away from the excellent vocal performances and staging.

Congrats to our local talent! There was no perceptible separation between your quality and that of a full-time road company!

And Donald, tell the Saroyan to turn down the heat. The first act from the balcony was like watching a show from a hot tub.

Martin Martinez. says:

You said it well about the leads and limuel Forgeys bishop. They were all strong vocally and acting wise.I think it was limuels daughter who played the young cosette. She like her father has a strong voice. Everyone in the cast did an excellent job.The highlight for me was the opening number. I would recommend this show to anybody.

James says:

I was disappointed with the production the moment I saw the orchestra pit. The Fresno “Grand Opera,” a term used for large-scale productions, allocated a single violinist, a single cellist, and a thin horn and reed section for this important score. The sweeping hall-filling, usually spine tingling violin introduction to the song “Stars” was a thin mess.

I would have sacrificed much of the stage set for an orchestra appropriate to play this genius score. If the workers could use “pretend hammers” in the air, certainly something else could have been trimmed to pay another musician or two. The local Visalia production was five times better and the orchestra was composed mostly of local music students who did an outstanding job.

Elisha says:

James, it’s a shame you have a distasteful review of the FGO orchestra’s performance this weekend. While I find it nice to hear your comments about the Visalia production, you might know that the Visalia orchestra pit was not composed of student players. They were all local professionals from around the valley, as were in the FGO production. I would know this because I hired the Visalia pit orchestra, conducted 4 of the shows in Visalia and played in the FGO pit orchestra this weekend. I urge you to get all the facts before posting. Thank you.

Robert Armer says:

I am a Fresno native, and spent my career working
In-and-around Fresno. During my lifetime, I have seen many entertainment, social, and educational projects fail due to a variety of reasons. I personally have seem Les Miserables several times…on stage in Fresno and San Francisco, and as a movie. I was so impressed with this production and would rate it on a par, if not better than most of my previous experiences. As a critic of your critique, I could say that your posting was less than what I expected. You take exception to ” several apparent glitches”, none of which I experienced. I was so taken with this performance and the performers, I am left wondering why you chose to nitpick a very few problems ? Perhaps, you chose to remain “above” the masses who enjoyed the production ?

DeborahGK says:

We attended the Sunday performance. 2nd row middle right. This production was fabulous and thoroughly enjoyed. Really fabulous cast all around. Loved the scenery. We have attended most Grand Opera Performances in recent years and at least this was indeed on a “Grand” scale. Cause for rejoining as season ticket holders again. Like another reviewer, we too enjoy sitting up front to see the performers faces and the orchestra as well – this was emotional on many levels, so proud of Fresno.

Kathleen says:

I agree with Robert Armer! I, too, was very impressed by the performance and incredibly disappointed with the review! The performers were amazingly talented and well prepared on par with many SF performances that I have seen. The set transitions practically seamless and beautiful with the watercolors. The few glitches (light and sound) were technical not to be confused with the talent. Any performance that can bring you to tears multiple times (our party of 4,ages 13-61) should be given high praise. This production was moving beyond words.

Arlynne says:

Just returned from the Sunday matinee performance and we thought it was spectacular. Like many others we have seen Les Miserables several times.
After reading your review I was not sure what to expect. You will be happy to know we never heard the curtain fall making a sound and we were in the 4th row.
I listen to the CD in the car & on the way home we felt the voices we had just heard were as good if not better than the music on the CD.
I have never written to you or anyone regarding a review but i felt compelled to say how much we enjoyed it and how proud we were that we saw this in our hometown. Kudos to the Fresno Grand Opera and everyone involved.

David Malcolm says:

A wonderful production. We are so fortunate to have such talent come to Fresno.

Carrie Davis says:

I thought the production might have been outstanding (if I could have focused on it). I kept thinking after 50 plus door openings..I must warn patrons to never sit at the top of Orchestra . (NEVER BUY TICKETs from row X and up ! They filter all the rude patrons and rude ushers (for their own pleasures) to go in and out of door #10 ! I have never been so distracted. Upon writing them they agreed and are perplexed as to what to do! Even theaters that charge $15.00 a ticket (verses $100.00) understand the doors are to be kept closed until intermission . I am never going back. There is more than a production being good or bad, that can make you not want to go.

James Hayes says:

My wife Kim who had only seen the movie and I went to the Saturday Matinee. On the whole we loved it. I do have to say I also missed the turn table, mostly during the barricade scenes. We both felt it was a little strange and a bit silly when they had to push the barricade apart to show Gavroache being shot and dying. It was much better with the turn table, because the whole thing turned to show the other side of the barricade as the scene played out. Now, there were a few problems with the solo lighting and the sound, which after the open night I would have thought they would have taken care of. We heard someone laughting over the sound system just as Eponine died and a couple of other times we thought we heard voices. To be honest with all the money that was spent on this production and the time spent working on it, plus the talented people that were used for the lighting and sound, we would have expected there would not have been these problems in the first place. Though the orchestra was smaller than I expected, it was very good. We were in the third row just off the center on the right and to see actors faces as they performed was a highlight and worth the money spent on the tickets to us. We had never been so close to a stage before. It really adds to the show to be able to see them close up. Everyone in the show sang so great and so moving, and they performed their parts just as well. Not just the leads, but everyone. Great cast! Even with the few problems we both wish very much we could have seen it again. On the whole FGO and Fresno should be proud of this production. May there be more of the same and even better to come!

JJJJJ says:

I was there Friday night.

My only complain s like Bobs: I was in the balcony and it was boiling up there.

Also, how is it that a theater thats been around so long, and with so few bathrooms, doesnt provide a longer intermission so dozens arent left still standing in line when the show starts again?

Bob says:

To respond to Robert’s comment – my wife and I come from a theater background. It is impossible to turn that off during a performance.

The cast was wonderful, the orchestra too loud at times (part of that is the architecture at the Saroyan’s fault), sound and light problems are distracting and make it tougher on the performers.

Is this nitpicking? I’m sorry, I don’t think so. For what two tickets cost to sit in the balcony I would have expected these issues to have been already addressed.

jamie says:

A nice, small professional production. I can’t believe you, and others, complain about missing the turntable. That just promotes the idea that theatre has to have big technology to succeed. If you had said that you didn’t care for the designer’s handling of the barricade scene, that I could understand, but the theatre doesn’t need big turntables to succeed. I am proud of Fresno Opera so putting so much out there, financially and artistically, to put on this great show.

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