Review of Les Misérables

Wednesday, December 15, 2004 at 8:00pm
Pantages Theatre
Los Angeles, CA

Another venture to the theatre for another Les Misérables experience. This time, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and was able to get tickets and have someone come with me. We got the middle-range tickets, which put us in the second row of the second mezzanine. The good thing about the Pantages Theatre is that even if you sit in the very last row, the view is still quite good. So, I'm not complaining. We had some problems with timing though, so we were literally running up the stairs to the mezzanine just as the first chords of the opening we being played.

So here is the cast that we saw:

Jean Valjean   Randal Keith   Mme. Thénardier   Jennifer Butt
Javert   Trent Blanton *   Gavroche   Sean Gilbert
Fantine   Tonya Dixon   Eponine   Melissa Lyons
Young Cosette   Nadine Jacobson   Enjolras   John-Andrew Clark
Young Eponine   Gabriella Malek   Marius   Adam Jacobs
M. Thénardier   David Benoit   Cosette   Leslie Henstock

Rest of cast in order of appearance:

Farmer   Ivan Rutherford   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   Pierce Peter Brandt   Claquesous   James Chip Leonard
Factory Girl   Linda Pierson Huff   Combeferre   Pierce Peter Brandt
Old Woman (locket)   Karen Elliot   Feuilly   Eric Briarley
Crone (hair)   Nina Negri   Courfeyrac   Ivan Rutherford
Pimp   James Chip Leonard   Joly   Charles Hagerty
Bamatabois   Dave Hugo **   Grantaire   Dave Hugo **
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

* Trent Blanton replaces Robert Hunt
** Dave Hugo replaces all roles regularly played by Trent Blanton

Because we were late, I didn't get a chance to look through the program until intermission, but one of the first things I noticed was that there have been some major shuffling amongst the cast. Randal Keith I saw two years ago as Valjean and Tonya Dixon I saw last year as Fantine -- those were the same. As for everyone else, a number of people who had been in the ensemble for a long time are now in lead roles: e.g. Leslie Henstock who is now Cosette, John-Andrew Clark is now Enjolras, and Trent Blanton is Javert (although this is an understudy move).

The other major thing I noticed was Ivan Rutherford as an ensemble member. What's wrong with this picture? Ivan Rutherford, who I saw last year play Valjean and had been on Broadway for a long time (including the 10th Anniversary) as Valjean is in the ensemble? Why??? And he's not even the first understudy for Valjean. David Michael Felty is. Again, I don't understand why. So I hope someone will be able to clue me in on this. (Edit: I got a message in my guestbook from an anonymous visitor, saying that understudies are not ranked in the program where they are listed. It is alphabetical, which clears up this confusion for me. Thank you!)

Once I got over that, I could focus on other things.

As a whole, it was a very enjoyable performance. There were times I became enraptured by what was going on and really felt like I was there with them, which is a hard thing to do when you're sitting on the upper balcony. I worried about there not being a full orchestra (see more about the issue in my review of Miss Saigon at this same venue), but I was glad to see that there was not a synthesizer listed under the musicians section. It was a real, albeit small, human-powered orchestra. And you could tell the difference -- it was full, but not overpowering. I'm not sure if it was just me, or if the stage seemed smaller than most stages that usually host Les Mis, because with the barricades on the stage, it just seemed very visually cramped. But luckily they were able to have the trap door at the front of the stage for the Thénardiers to come out of and for Valjean and Marius to disappear into.

Okay, to the individual performances:

Randal Keith:

Wow, I honestly think Randal Keith is the best Valjean I have ever seen, hands down. I loved him two years ago, and I love him even more now. He brings the character so much depth, emotion, and vigor that Valjean really comes to life. I honestly don't think I have any complaints at all about his performance -- only accolades. "Bring Him Home" brought the house down. He made it sound like the prayer it is written to be, and he injected the right amount of delicacy the song needs to tug at the heartstrings. Vocally, it couldn't have been better. Those notes have to be in the uppermost range for any man (first A above middle C), and yet Randal Keith could pull them off without sounding strained and without making it sound weak. The other place I have to mention that I really enjoyed was "The Confrontation", a joint effort with Trent Blanton. Never have I heard it executed so flawlessly, yet with all the right emphasis and dynamics. Because almost the entire song is sung in counterpoint, it is very easy to fall out of synch, but the two of them hit every downbeat at the exact same time (without sounding like they were trying).

He also had a way of expressing himself in his monologues such that it really did seem like he was having a conversation with the audience, rather than just a person standing on stage talking to himself (in particular: "Prologue" and "Who am I?"). Also, I loved the way he read Marius' letter to Cosette. It was full of emotion, and he inserted a long pause in the line "Now that I know ... you love me as well, it is harder to die." Most of the time, Valjean reads straight through without pausing there, but the way Keith did it really makes it obvious that Valjean is shocked that Cosette is in love. And it makes sense because he believes that she has been kept at their house without any contact with anyone in the outside world (except when she goes out with him). He's got to be wondering how this all happened without him knowing.

I did think it was strange, however, in "Upon the Stones -- Building the Barricade" when Eponine goes to Valjean's house to deliver Marius' letter to Cosette. She is caught by Valjean when she climbs the fence, and Valjean immediately holds out his hand like he knew she had something to give before she even took the letter out of her jacket or even begins singing. Is he supposed to know her purpose for being there before she says anything?

The role of Valjean is also very physically demanding -- so much so that Colm Wilkinson was forbidden by his doctor from carrying Marius (played then by Michael Ball) around. So I have to give props to Keith for actually carrying Adam Jacobs for as long as he did. I mean, Keith is a fairly stocky, well-built man and Jacobs is only slightly on the short side, but still -- for a man to bear all the weight of another grown man and still be able to sing effortlessly is impressive.

Trent Blanton:

Overall, I liked Trent Blanton's performance as Javert. It took me a little while though, because I wasn't immediately impressed with the way he was singing in the "Prologue". He wasn't enunciating nearly as much as he should have to 1) give his dialogue the intended effect and 2) to be understood. He also started out with a strange way of ... almost "making his voice too full" is the best way I can put it. It's hard to explain. But most of those issues for me went away as he got deeper into the role. He had a great Javert presence, like he was made for the role. I can't think of any place in the show where his singing wasn't effortless. Like I mentioned before, he was the other half of making "The Confrontation" as successful as it was. He played very well off of Randal Keith, both in dialogue and the way that he moved on stage. "Stars" was spectacular, as was "Javert's Suicide" -- both really defined Javert's character as the duty-driven man who believes the law is every man's salvation. I also really liked how the entire theatre went silent for a few moments just before "Javert's Intervention (Another Brawl)" -- it really struck in me the power this man has and how much everyone fears him.

I did notice, however, one lyric slip-up -- and I'm pretty sure it's a mistake because it doesn't make much sense: in "Stars" when Javert is supposed to sing "He knows his way in the dark, but mine is the way of the Lord", Blanton instead sings "He knows his place in the dark". I can forgive this mistake because I know Blanton isn't the regular Javert and hasn't had nearly as much practice and repetition as someone who is a regular.

Tonya Dixon:

For the most part, I really enjoyed Tonya Dixon's portrayal of Fantine, and it seemed to be about the level I remember from last year. You could see how fragile life's challenges have made her, but at the same time there is still a fire burning within her that makes her fight to the very end to save her daughter. Dixon's best singing is when she's belting with all her power but she also does the delicate, soft singing very well, too. The only criticism I have is something I don't think I noticed last year -- the fact that her vowels are very sharp (as in they stand out a lot) and she closes on the diphthongs and consonants too early. Part of it is, I think, just the fact that I've been made aware of these finer points in the past year from my experiences in choir, but now that I am aware of them, it's actually a bit annoying. But that's really a minor detail, because I did love her performance.

"I Dreamed a Dream" was powerful towards the end of the song, and I really loved her presence during the "Finale" -- how she really did appear and sound ghost-like and ethereal. She also did an excellent job when she confronts Valjean for the first time since the factory -- "Monsieur, don't mock me now, I pray ..." That scene was delivered so well by Dixon that I don't think it could have been done better. But I didn't notice her taking the same dramatic pauses that I enjoyed so much last year, so they must have been something the director instructed her to do. And also unlike last year, this time she did address Javert when she sang "I never did no wrong ... my daughter's close to dying."

Nadine Jacobson:

Her biography in the program didn't say how old she is, but she seemed to be quite young -- certainly younger than most girls cast to play Young Cosette. You could tell from her voice that she is very young -- it is all natural talent and she hasn't had a lot of voice training. This isn't to say she performed badly -- on the contrary, she had a very sweet, innocent voice that was a pleasure to listen to. It's just that there is a decent-sized gap between a natural ability to sing well and having that natural ability honed with training. And as I have in previous viewings of Les Mis, I have to complain once again about cutting the introduction to "Castle on a Cloud." This poor girl is trying to sing this beautiful song, all the while trying to lift heavy chairs off of a table. Have mercy on her. Spare the extra few seconds and let Young Cosette deal with the chairs before trying to sing!

David Benoit & Jennifer Butt:

I could tell right away from the way David Benoit moved that he has some dance experience. He moved all around the stage with a certain grace, but without undermining M. Thénardier's character. He also sang about as well as the best Thénardier's I have seen, so I have nothing to complain about with his performance. He had all of the standard antics, but I noticed he added in the cutesy poking of Young Cosette's nose (like you do with a baby or very young child) that was quite funny. Jennifer Butt originated the role of Madame Thénardier on Broadway (back in 1987?), which would make her about as good of an actress and you can get, and that fact certainly paid off. The way that she portrayed Mme. Thénardier could only have come from years of experience, knowing exactly where to place vocal emphasis and have the correct timing for having the intended effects.

Together, Benoit and Butt played well off each other in "Waltz of Treachery" when they were trying to orchestrate the best way to get as much money out of Valjean as possible, and in "The Wedding Chorale" & "Beggars at the Feast". In previous years, I saw M. Thénardier pretend to act shocked at the Majordomo when he dropped the silver platter and other times the Thénardiers would look up at the ceiling when their stolen wares fell out. This time, they did both. First M. Thénardier dropped the silver platter, which he immediately kicked like a hockey puck over to the Majordomo who stopped it with his foot, and M. Thénardier then pointed at him and let out a gasp of mock disbelief (not nearly as drawn out as Michael Hayward-Jones did last year, so it wasn't quite as funny). And then as he and Mme. Thénardier start to walk away, she drops a bunch of stolen utensils from her dress and they both look up at the ceiling and shrug their shoulders. I think they should just stick with one of those, not both, because the second one kind of takes away from the first and it ends up seeming like they're just doing for the sake of being funny.

Sean Gilbert:

Sean Gilbert has to be the cutest Gavroche I have ever seen! He literally drew applause from the audience after every time that he sang (even in the middle of songs) because he was so cute. His biography says he is 8, but when I first saw him on stage, I could have sworn he couldn't have been older than 6. I mean, you know how kids gradually develop gross motor skills as they get older, and running around becomes less of an effort for them? Gilbert just seemed to have the body of a 6-year-old because he didn't run around on stage and climb on the barricades as easily as most 8-year-olds can. But nonetheless, he was just cute! I loved how they gave him a small red flag to wave as he ran after Enjolras doing the same with the big flag. Just adorable. Then there was the way that he confronted Javert to reveal him as a spy -- he had the entire audience rolling when he gave Javert that arm gesture. Almost right off the bat, he found a place in my heart and I knew I was going to cry when Gavroche got shot. I do think, though -- and perhaps this has to do with his apparent youth -- his acting isn't the greatest. He sings well enough, but a few key words that should have been emphasized were not. But again, he was so cute that it didn't really matter.

Melissa Lyons:

Lyons had one of the cleaner performances of Eponine that I've seen, and I liken her style a little bit to Lea Salonga when she's singing in the lower register and someone else I can't yet place in the upper register (sorry, I know that doesn't do you any good). She's got an incredibly powerful voice that delivers in both the high and low notes, and I just wished she used it more. If you've read my Miss Saigon reviews, the half-speaking half-singing method of injecting drama and emotion to a certain line doesn't ring well with me, and there were a few times during Lyons' performance where she started some of her lines like that. Not nearly as extensive as Rachel Kopf, but just barely enough that it caught my attention. Not a big deal though. The other thing I noticed about her portrayal came in her very first few lines with Marius: she did the whole shy schoolgirl thing with her head and shoulders -- you know, the giggly flirtatious kind of posture that kind of says, "Don't you think I'm cute?". I didn't really like that because Eponine isn't that kind of character. Even while flirting with Marius, she would be anything but shy. She has too much spunk to act that way. But aside from that, I enjoyed her performance, and especially "On My Own" where she was able to convey all the emotion that was written in that song. "A Little Fall of Rain" was good also, but I would have liked a little more emotion -- whether physical or in her voice -- because that was somewhat lacking in the interaction between her and Marius.

Adam Jacobs:

Jacobs did a spectacular job at playing Marius -- a lot of depth and and very full, strong voice to go along with it. I really can't think of anything but good things to talk about. He definitely instilled in his character a desire for life but also to stand up for freedom. The way that he sang about his feelings of love during "Red and Black" and how he will possibly never see Cosette again during "Drink With Me" -- both full of passion. And in "Valjean's Confession", you could see it in the way he played off of Randal Keith that Marius had so much respect for Valjean and so much love for Cosette that he had no choice but to abide by Valjean's wishes. The only thing I wish he'd done was at the end of "In My Life" -- I forget which cast it was, but Marius would very gently touch Eponine on the shoulder right when they sing "touch" during the line "In my life, there is someone who touches my life ..." and Eponine glances over her shoulder. It has a nice effect, but they didn't do that this time. Too bad.

Leslie Henstock:

All that time being in the ensemble (and I would assume also understudy for Cosette) has paid off and resulted in a great performance as Cosette. Henstock made Cosette come across as youthful and eager to experience a life she can only dream about, and when she meets Marius, you can almost see love blossoming. Henstock has a beautiful soprano voice that is just right for this role -- not operatic and not too much vibrato, making "In My Life" and "A Heart Full of Love" a pleasure to listen to. I also really enjoyed her in the "Finale", when she pleaded with Valjean not to die. She gave such a heartfelt performance and played off Keith so well that it just broke my heart.

John-Andrew Clark:

I have to say I wasn't thoroughly impressed by Clark's portrayal of Enjolras. He doesn't quite fit the character because it requires a voice that is very powerful in all ranges, and unfortunately Clark is rather weak in some of the higher notes (and Enjolras isn't even that high of a voice part -- kind of a high baritone). A lot of the key phrases and dialogue comes during those time, but Clark wasn't really able to deliver them as effectively as others have had. Nonetheless, "Do You Hear the People Sing" was very well done and he generally did a good job at leading the revolution.

A few other comments:

In the absence of a victim,
Dear Inspector, may I go?
And remember when you've nicked him,
It was me who told you so!

At that point, Javert just stood menacingly over M. Thénardier, who was kneeling on the ground and leaning back away from Javert in fear. Only, Thénardier kept leaning until he fell over onto his back. Funny.

Overall, I would give this performance a 4 out of 5. There was definitely a lot to be liked, but a few key points that could have been better.

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