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Les Miserables at The National Theatre

By • Dec 15th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Les Miserables
Touring Production
The National Theatre, Washington DC
Through December 30th
2:37 hours, one intermission
$109-$198 (plus fees)
Reviewed December 14th, 2012

One attraction of the stage musical Les Misérables is that it is so remote … and so immediate.

The action takes place far away and long ago: France, between 1815 and 1832. Yet the themes and issues are somehow so familiar: wealth and poverty, oppression and liberation, cynicism and idealism, despair and hope, over-privilege and under-privilege, political conflict and interpersonal love.

And then there’s that soaring, grand opera music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. In aria after aria, chorus after chorus, scene after scene the music starts off grim and grinding, builds and swells and then takes off into exultation or reflection, tragedy or romance.

The story encompasses the usual hazards of opera: questionable plausibility, melodramatic incidents and, of course, prolonged, heart-rending death scenes. For comic relief we have the shenanigans of not-necessarily-very-funny skanky clowns. The unsavory low-lifes, as we are reminded at the touring production currently playing at the National Theatre, can come across as grotesque.

Any production of Les Mis operates on the frontier between grandeur and grandiosity. Sometimes you get towering, compelling emotion. And sometimes you get bombastic, hollow pretense. I’ve seen Les Mis four times now — in New York, Seattle, Vancouver and, just recently, at the National. Until the D.C. experience, I’ve been lucky. The productions stayed on the safe side of the divide between feeling and expression. This latest venture, however, was disappointing. At the National, expression way exceeds feeling.

The result is coarse, hollow and strained. The loudness is too loud. The crescendos build too quickly. The acting, on the whole, is broad at best and, at worst, ludicrous.

However … the protagonist and the young lovers are excellent singers and not bad actors. To a lesser degree, the same can be said for two of the main figures in a large group of luckless women.

Peter Lockyer plays Jean Valjean the protagonist. Valjean’s heroism strains credibility — but that’s just the way things are in French romantic-era literature. Think Three Musketeers. Think The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Valjean, convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to keep his nephew alive, serves his sentence as a galley-slave. Eventually paroled, he runs amok. But he is redeemed by a saintly bishop. He then goes on to become a wealthy factory owner and mayor of a small city. The law catches up with him. His nemesis, the cruel inspector Javert, wants to send him back to prison. Valjean repeatedly evades Javert. He becomes the guardian of a very unfortunate young woman’s child. He is caught up in the violent June of 1832 Paris confrontation between true-believing sons of the Republic and rigid upholders of authoritarianism. After the slaughter he saves his foster-daughter’s wounded fiancé. When fiancé and foster-daughter are safely reunited, Valjean dies peacefully — escorted into the afterlife by a host of cast-members whose deaths were generally not at all peaceful.

In the early galley slave and renegade parolee scenes, Lockyer is strident and unnervingly bombastic, which does not bode well at all for the long evening ahead in his company. But he quickly tones down his acting and singing. He adds subtlety and nuance. Eventually he does some astoundingly quiet, meditative, sustained high-tenor-range virtuoso singing.

Devin Ilaw as Marius, the fiancé, and Lauren Wiley, as Cosette, the foster-daughter, both sing beautifully — and with outstandingly clear diction. Also commendable are Briana Carson-Goodman as a lovelorn dreamer and Genevieve Leclerc as Cosette’s much-abused mother.

Les Mis has an epic, all-over-the-place sprawl of incidents and settings. The smallish stage at National Theatre is not an ideal venue for the show. The action looks inappropriately cramped when two dozen performers are on stage, all vigorously singing and flailing about. 

Giving the illusion of some depth and movement are cunningly shifting projections devised by Fifty-Nine Productions — especially effective in the famous escape-via-the-sewer-tunnels scene.

Les Mis has earned its place as a mega-hit musical: countless awards, record long-runs, productions in 42 countries and translations into 21 languages. And now comes the movie version with a cast that includes Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway and Sacha Baron Cohen. On pages 2 and 3 of the National Theatre Playbill is a color spread advertising ” ‘Les Misérables’ THE MUSICAL PHENOMENON in theaters Christmas Day.”

Photo Gallery

'Lovely Ladies' 'Fall of Rain'
‘Lovely Ladies’
‘Fall of Rain’
'The Barricade' 'One Day More'
‘The Barricade’
‘One Day More’
'Stars' peformed by Andrew Varela (Javert) Briana Carlson-Goodman as Eponine
‘Stars’ peformed by Andrew Varela (Javert)
Briana Carlson-Goodman as Eponine
Peter Lockyer as Jean Valjean 'Master of the House'
Peter Lockyer as Jean Valjean
‘Master of the House’

Photos by Deen van Meer

Cast

  • Jean Valjean: Peter Lockyer
  • Javert: Andrew Varela
  • Farmer: Lee Zarrett
  • Laborer: Jordan Nichols
  • Innkeepers’ Wife: Natalie Beck
  • Innkeeper: Joseph Spieldenner
  • The Bishop of Digne: James Zannelli
  • Constables: Ian Patrick Gibb, Alan Shaw
  • Factory Foreman: Richard Todd Adams
  • Fantine: Genevieve Leclerc
  • Factory Girl: Jessica Keenan Wynn
  • Old Woman: Beth Kirkpatrick
  • Wigmaker: Cornelia Luna
  • Bamatabois: Lee Zarrett
  • Fauchelevent: Eriv Van Tielen
  • Champmathieu: Nathaniel Hackmann
  • Little Cosette: Erin Cearlock, Abbey Rose Gould
  • Madame Thenardier: Shawna M. Hamic
  • Young Eponine: Erin Cearlock, Abbey Rose Gould
  • Thenardier: Timothy Gulan
  • Young Whore: Brittany Johnson
  • Crazy Whore: Siri Howard
  • Gavroche: Joshus Colley, Hayden Wall
  • Eponine: Briana Carson-Goodman
  • Cosette: Lauren Wiley
  • Thenardier’s Gang
    • Montparnasse: Jordan Nichols
    • Babet: James Zannelli
    • Brujon: Nathaniel Hackmann
    • Claquesous: Lee Zarrett
  • Students
    • Enjolars: Jason Forbach
    • Marius: Devin ilaw
    • Combeferre: Eric Van Tielen
    • Feuilly: Weston Wells Olson
    • Courfeyrac: John Brink
    • Joly: Alan Shaw
    • Grantaire: Joseph Spieldenner
    • Lesgles: Richard Todd Adams
    • Jean Prouvaire: Ian Patrick Gibb
    • Loud Hailer: Nathaniel Hackmann
    • Major Domo: Joseph Spieldenner
  • Ensemble: Hannah Isabel Bautista, Natalie Beck, Erin Clemons, Lucia Gianetta, Siri Howard, Brittany Johnson, Beth Kirkpatrick, Cornelia Luna, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Richard Barth, Ben Gunderson, Jason Ostrowski, Rachel Rincione, Natalie Weiss
  • Dance & Fight Captain: Ben Gunderson
  • Assistant Fight Captain: Heather Chockley

Understudies

  • For Jean Valjean: Richard Todd Adams, John Brink, Nathaniel Hackmann
  • for Javert: Richard Todd Adams, Joseph Spieldenner
  • for Cosette: Natalie Beck, Siri Howard
  • for Fantine: Cornelia Luna, Jessica Keenan Wynn
  • for Thenardier: James Zannelli, Lee Zarrett
  • for Madame Thenardier: Lucia Gianetta, Beth Kirkpatrick
  • for Eponine: Erin Clemons, Britanny Johnson
  • for Marius: Ian Patrick Gibb, Jordan nichols
  • for Enjolras: John Brink, Weston Wells Olson, Alan Shaw
  • for little Cosette/young Eponine: Hannah Isabel Bautista
  • for the Bishop of Digne: Joseph Spieldenner, Lee Zarrett
  • for the factory foreman: Jason Ostrowski, Joseph Spieldenner
  • for the Factory Girl: Lucia Gianetta, Rachel Rincione
  • for Bamatabois: Richard Barth, Joseph Spieldenner
  • for Grantaire: Ben Gunderson, Eric Van Tielen

The Orchestra

  • Music Director/Conductor: Lawrence Goldberg
  • Associate Conductor/Keyboards: Tom Whiddon
  • Concertmaster: Michelle Maruyama
  • Keyboards: Adm Laird
  • Percussion: Eric Borghi
  • Music Coordinator: Michael Keller
  • Local Musicians
    • Flute/Picc: David Lonkevich
    • Oboe/English Horn: David Garcia
    • Clarinet, Bass, E flat, Recorder: Ed Walters
    • French Horn: Mark Hughes
    • French Horn: Rick Lee
    • Trumpet: Chris Gekker
    • Trombone, Bass Trombone, Tuba: Paul Scchultz
    • Viola: Kyung Leblanc
    • Cello: Suzzane Orban
    • Acoustic Bass: Chris Chlumsky
    • Keyboard II Sub: Alex Tang
  • Designers and Crew

    • Producer: Cameron Mackintosh
    • Lyricist: Herbert Kretzmer
    • Director: Laurence Connor
    • Director: James Powell
    • Scenic and Image Designer: Matt Kinley
    • Costume Designer: Andreane Neofitou
    • Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
    • Sound Designer: Mick Potter
    • Additional Costumes: Christine Rowland
    • Musical Staging: Michael Ashcroft
    • Musical Director/Conductor: Lawrence Goldberg
    • Original Orchestrations: David Caddick
    • Music Supervisor: John Cameron
    • New Orchestrations: Christopher Jahnke
    • Additional Orchestrations: Stephen Metcalfe
    • Additional Orchestrations: Stephen Brooker
    • Original French Text: Jean-Marc Natel
    • Additional Material: James Fenton
    • Associate Director: Anthony Lyn
    • UK Associate Director: Christopher Key
    • Casting: Tara Rubin Casting
    • Company Manager: Joel T. Herbst
    • Resident Director: Michael O’Donnell
    • Production Stage Manager: Trinity Wheeler
    • Stage Manager: Heather Chockley
    • Assistant Stage Manager: Mitchell B. Hodged
    • Executive Producer: Seth Wenig

    Disclaimer: The National Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

One Response »

  1. I agreed with just about everything you wrote. My wife has seen the show at least 12 times and I have seen it about 5 times and this was the worst production we have seen. We felt fairly let down with all the secenes that were always so emotional but here were so hurried. I didn’t feel there was any connection to their parts. I also don’t recall cozette and marius kissing in the past or the two in the inn pretening to have sex upstair. Dissappointed to say the least for over $200. Thank goodness for youtube and the Ruthie Henshall 10th anniversary video’s to see how it’s supposed to feel and connect.