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.
– 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.