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Review of Les Misérables

Thursday, June 16, 2005 at 8:00pm
Curran Theatre
San Francisco, CA

I was eagerly awaiting this trip to Les Mis and the timing was perfect for my being at home in between spring quarter and summer session. Because it was rainy weather, my mom generously offered to drive my brother and me to the show as well as coming to pick us up, so we were able to make there early and with plenty of time for me to visit Starbucks across the street. There I met a couple whose daughter had gone to high school with "the actor playing Marius". And I said, "Oh, you mean, Adam Jacobs?" And they were surprised that I knew of him, but I explained that I'd seen him last year. They were very eager to see him tonight and all three of us kept our fingers crossed that there wouldn't be a slip of paper in the program announcing an understudy for Marius. But small world, no?

Anyway, tonight's cast:

Jean Valjean   Randal Keith   Mme. Thénardier   Jennifer Butt
Javert   Pierce Peter Brandt *   Gavroche   Noah E. Galvin
Fantine   Tonya Dixon   Eponine   Melissa Lyons
Young Cosette   Rachel Schier   Enjolras   Michael Halling
Young Eponine   Meg Guzulescu   Marius   Adam Jacobs
M. Thénardier   David Benoit   Cosette   Leslie Henstock
             

Rest of cast in order of appearance:

Farmer   Roger Seyer   Montparnasse   Kip Driver
The Bishop of Digne   Michael St. John   Babet   Kevin David Thomas
Constables   James Chip Leonard, Kevin David Thomas   Brujon   David Michael Felty
Foreman   Dave Hugo **   Claquesous   James Chip Leonard
Factory Girl   Kelly McCormick   Combeferre   Dave Hugo **
Old Woman (locket)   Karen Elliot   Feuilly   Matt Clemens ***
Crone (hair)   Nina Negri   Courfeyrac   Roger Seyer
Pimp   James Chip Leonard   Joly   Charles Hagerty
Bamatabois   Trent Blanton   Grantaire   Trent Blanton
Fauchelevant   James Chip Leonard   Lesgles   Michael St. John
Old Beggar Woman ("Look Down")   Marnie Nicolella   Jean Prouvaire   Ryan Williams
Young Prostitute   Carrie A. Johnson   Major Domo   Charles Hagerty
             

* Pierce Peter Brandt replaces Robert Hunt
** Dave Hugo replaces roles regularly played by Pierce Peter Brandt
*** Matt Clemens replaces roles regularly played by Eric Briarley

I was already griping as soon as we walked into the theatre because, again, Robert Hunt was being replaced by an understudy. Will I ever get to see Robert Hunt?!?! I've heard so many good things about him that I was rather disappointed that I was going to miss seeing him again. There were also a couple of changes to the cast since I saw it in December in L.A.: Michael Halling as Enjolras, Rachel Schier as Young Cosette (and Meg Guzulescu as Young Eponine, who rotates with Schier), and Noah E. Galvin as Gavroche. A couple of changes, too, to the minor roles, but otherwise it was almost the same as last year's.

General impressions. I'm not sure if it's just that we were sitting closer to the stage and orchestra pit, but it sounded as if the orchestra was incredibly powerful -- to the point where there were times when it drowned out the actors' singing. Sure, the orchestra sounded great -- and reading the program now, there were many more human-powered instruments utilized, which I am very glad to see and it made such a big difference in sound quality -- but it kind of becomes negated when you can't hear what the actors are saying. I guess you just can't win.

Best performances of the night go to Randal Keith (as always), Tonya Dixon (much improved from last year), and Noah E. Galvin (what a pleasant surprise!).

Our seats were so good that I could actually see the spray of spittle when Randal Keith spat after getting kicked off the farm. But more importantly, we were able to see facial expressions of the actors very clearly, which comes into play in their performances as I will describe for each:

Randal Keith:

Randal Keith once again confirmed for me that he is the best Jean Valjean I have seen, and this performance was just about as good, if not better, as last year. His voice is perfect for this role and his acting is very natural and not at all forced like you might imagine for some actors in such a demanding role. "Bring Him Home" was his best song (although it's really hard to pick from the songs he performs) and perhaps the best song of the entire show. I don't know how he does it -- singing in his falsetto range with almost no effort, that it just makes you want to close your eyes and bask in the aural sweetness his voice brings. And he also manages to smoothly shift into his lower range and deliver the power and resonance that fills the entire theatre. There was one point, however, in "Bring Him Home" when I expected him to continue the line with the same power he started out with (I think it was "If I die, let me die"), but suddenly backed off and finished it in his upper range. It still sounded good, but it's just not what I'm used to.

Pierce Peter Brandt:

While Trent Blanton's performance last year started out a little rough but grew better over time, Pierce Peter Brandt's portrayal of Javert was somewhat the opposite. At first, in the "Prologue", I was rather enjoying his voice and delivery. But by the time "Stars" came around, I was noticing little things that bothered me. A lot of the time, he sings with his head up and seems to "chew" on his words (that's the only way I can describe it, and I don't know if it makes sense to anyone else). And then during "The First Attack" (right after the exchange of gunfire) and at the end of "The Final Battle" (sitting on the barricade contemplating where Valjean might be), he had this shuttered breathing that really started to stand out. Perhaps that can attributed to his relative lack of experience in playing Javert -- little nuances that one picks up only with enough repetition.

Vocally, Brandt was actually pretty good. Maybe his voice isn't quite as deep as it should be, as there were a couple times when he wasn't quite able to reach the deepest notes for Javert (most notably in "The Confrontation" when he sings "'M'sieur le Mayor', you'll wear a different chain" and goes really low, his voice was practically inaudible), but otherwise his voice was a pretty good fit for the role. He was able to put power into his voice and I liked the inflections he put into his lines.

Tonya Dixon:

All I can say is "Wow". Wow, wow, wow. What a huge difference from last year. I mean, last year's performance wasn't that bad but there were many places where her vowels bothered me -- but tonight, it wasn't as much of an issue. In fact, of the three times I've seen Tonya Dixon as Fantine, this is most definitely the best. "I Dreamed a Dream" was flawless -- I even got chills running down my spine when she got to "But there are dreams that cannot be" and she gave it so much power that it filled the entire theatre and then some! And even when she sang in her head voice (i.e. beginning of "I Dreamed a Dream" and " Come to Me (Fantine's Death)"), her voice was still resonant and wasn't at all shrill.

Again, I noticed just how physical her role is. Getting thrown and sliding across the stage just can't be faked like most other things, and yet she manages to endure it night after night.

Rachel Schier:

Rachel Schier was a very sweet Young Cosette. It almost seemed like she was dancing with her broom as she was sweeping the floor, which she did very meticulously. Her voice isn't as strong as other girls I've seen play Young Cosette, but in a way, that added to her character -- having been mistreated by the Thénardiers, one would probably expect her to be quite fragile. But her spirit still was able to shine through. In the bridge of "Castle on a Cloud," her facial expressions really made you want to make Young Cosette's fantasy come true. She also did an excellent job at being frightened and on the brink of tears when Madame Thénardier ordered her to fetch water from the woods -- she stood there, barely able to hold the wooden bucket that was almost as big as she was, shaking and trembling.

David Benoit & Jennifer Butt:

Monsieur and Madame Thénardier were essential to the comic relief, as always. Their performances were more or less the same as last year -- standard stuff that was funny but nothing really new. It seemed "Master of the House" had a lot more pep to it, though, which I think had a lot to do with how David Benoit moved around the stage and interacted with the patrons. Unfortunately, that pep didn't quite carry over to the "Beggars at the Feast", which felt a little flat. Even their stealing of silverware and having them fall out of their clothes wasn't as funny as it could have been, and I think it was just a matter of timing. Perhaps it was too rushed.

"Waltz of Treachery" was quite funny, though -- when they sang:

"One thing more, one small doubt
There are treacherous people about
No offense. Please reflect.
Your intentions may not be correct?"

Monsieur Thénardier grabbed Cosette and held her dangling from his arm almost sideways during this entire verse, and held off the final consonant on "corre.............ct", both of which were unique to me and had a nice effect. Oh, and the funniest part of that scene was when Monsieur Thénardier sang, "Shared our bread, shared each bone. Treated her like she's one of our own. Like our own, Monsieur!" at which point he stood up and walked away, pretending to weep and saying, "I can't do this, I just can't!"

Noah E. Galvin:

Noah E. Galvin has to be one of the best Gavroches I have ever seen. The program says this is his first professional job ever, and I am amazed at the maturity he shows on stage. His singing was absolutely wonderful to listen to -- in tune, on time, and spunky. He even moved about on stage and waved his hands with more maturity than other kids playing this role who have had more acting experience. I especially liked the way he delivered his final line just before being shot to death, "So you'd better run for cover when the pup grows --" where he had Gavorche muster up all of his remaining strength and sang this line loudly, as if in defiance of death. I just about lost it then.

The only place I didn't like his delivery was when he said "General Lamarque is dead," which was very flat and seemed like it lacked any significance, whereas it really is a turning point for the student rebellion.

Melissa Lyons:

I wasn't quite as fond of Melissa Lyon's performance of Eponine this time around. She was still very good, mind you, but there were times in the beginning of "On My Own" and through most of "A Little Fall of Rain" when it seemed like she was trying a little too hard to project her voice, and as a result, her singing just didn't feel as natural as it could have been. Thankfully, she didn't do that half-speaking half-singing thing this time, though a couple places in the middle of "On My Own" sounded like she was about to do that. She has an incredibly powerful voice that really comes through at the end of that song, and the emotion really came through when she let the end of the line "A world that's full of happiness, that I have never known" echo throughout the otherwise silent theatre. And then quietly singing "I love him" after that silence really got the tears in my eyes. "A Little Fall of Rain" seemed a little lacking in emotion, both from Lyons and from Adam Jacobs. The girl is about to die, for heaven's sake.

Adam Jacobs:

After seeing Adam Jacobs play Marius last year, I had high expectations for him this time and he didn't disappoint. And it was such an added bonus to be able to see his face as he performed, which added to the experience. He was great at being love struck during "Red and Black" and "In My Life" that it made you want him to find Cosette and fall in love with her (even though I personally feel that Marius should have chosen Eponine, but that's another matter in itself). Jacobs has an incredibly flawless voice that was consistent throughout the night's performance. He is capable of singing with such clarity, resonance and passion that it makes him one of the best Mariuses (Marii?) I've seen.

Leslie Henstock:

Leslie Henstock's Cosette is another performance I liked more last year. Something about the way she sang tonight bothered me -- almost like her upper notes were a little too shrill and didn't at all have the support to give them the resonance they needed to sound full (and this is the problem I have heard with many other Cosettes in the past). The only time I didn't really notice it was in the "Finale", which was as good as it was last year, playing off of Randal Keith very well and letting all of that emotion come through. And even just the way she read Valjean's letter to her was quite moving, the way she choked on her tears and turned to Marius to cry.

Michael Halling:

Michael Halling replacing John-Andrew Clark as Enjolras was another change that happened since December, and a couple reviews I read gave me hope that Halling would be a better fit for the role than Clark. Well, only marginally so. While he has a lot more power in both ends of his voice range, his voice sounds a bit high overall and he uses a bit too much vibrato. As a result, he just doesn't sing with as much depth. It has always struck me that Enjolras should have a clean and simple delivery. Halling is a very tall and thin guy, so he has a great presence on stage that is fitting for this role, so I am just hoping he settles into it a little better as time goes on and as he gets more accustomed to the character.

Random thoughts:

Overall rating: 4 out of 5. There were some really outstanding performances but others that need some ironing out and is probably just a matter of time.

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