Les Miserables – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

The story goes that when producer Cameron Mackintosh opened Les Miserables in London in 1985 he was convinced he had a flop. On that October night, audiences didn’t seem to respond, while opening night reviews were less than enthusiastic. The Observer called it “witless,” while The Sunday Telegraph thought it “lurid.” Then Mackintosh received a call from the theatre.

The box-office phone was ringing off the hook. At first, Mackintosh thought they were calls of complaints, audiences wanting their money back. But no, the producer was assured; it was the opposite. Advanced performances were selling out. The negative reviews had left no impact; it was opening night word-of-mouth that made all the difference. Les Miserables wasn’t just a hit, it was massive.

That was almost 33 years ago. The show has been running non-stop in London ever since. To date, more than 70 million people around the world have seen the musical, and while the Broadway production has closed, London is still performing. At this point, the show continues to book in the West End until March of 2019, and who knows what might happen after that. Attendance has shown no decline.

Since it’s NYC opening in 1987, Broadway has seen several revivals, plus 4 national tours, the latest having begun its journey last year, 2017, where much of the staging comes from the new production design of the 2014 revival. And it’s that production that opened last evening at ASU Gammage in Tempe. With its new look, a change of lighting design, and a backscreen projection of 19th-century France, all adding to a better clarity of storytelling, you can’t help but wonder how different that reserved opening night audience in 1985 would have responded had they seen how far the show has developed over the years, the one that Gammage audiences saw last night.

Outside of the regional productions produced in the valley, if this is a return visit to the national tour, and it’s been years since you last saw the sung-thru musical, here are some things to consider. There’s no longer a turntable. Plus, the overall scenic design is new, the sets inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. A large backscreen projection, its images slowly moving as characters walk through the Parisean streets, add an extra layer of imagined odor to the downtrodden, miserable existence of its people. And look closely at the opening where the prisoners are doing hard labor, rowing the massive oars below deck on a ship (a design change, inspired from the opening of the film); you’ll see projected splashes of water.

But there are flaws. With each new revision comes a new approach to the show’s only genuine comical episode, Master of the House, a he said/she said account of life in a small country inn, as sung by the reprehensible Thenardiers (Allison Guinn and J Anthony Crane). What used to be a fairly restrained sequence where one character contradicted the claims of the other and the laughs came directly from the lyrics of the catchy, oom-pah-pah sing-a-long, has developed into an overly broad sketch of over-the-top manners where the low-rent thief and his unprincipled wife have way too much messy business to get through. Thenardier even slaps and fist punches his guests while singing how he secretly bilks them. If there’s one scene that needs a return to the way it was, it’s Master of the House. Though Madame Thenardier’s equating of her husband’s appendage with a baguette then cutting off the end for a more realistic look at its size is funny.

There’s also the lighting. The style appears to favor a design based more on the achievement of shadows and fog. For some scenes, the dimly lit approach works well, as with the exterior of Valjean’s house by the gated fence. An eye-catching dusty brown glow envelopes the area, aided by the use of the two large gas lamps that flank the opening of the tall gate. Then there’s the cafe where the idealistic students meet as they prepare for revolution. Shards of light from the outside world shine in from the high-top windows and beam down like spotlights on the characters below. But there are also times when the dark, atmospheric shadings find it difficult to always know what you’re looking at. While focusing on a crowd scene and trying to make out exactly what it is you’re supposed to be watching, you miss the moment of impact of a runaway cart pinning and crushing a victim to the ground.

Yet, despite the appearance of the production and all the technical elements that add to an overall thrilling theatrical experience (Javert’s jump from the bridge is breathtaking), it’s the sound more than the look that becomes the most striking element of all. The singing throughout is outstanding. It’s not just the powerful, robust voices of the ensemble, but also the solos, without exception.

From Fantine’s pathetically heartfelt I Dreamed a Dream, as sung by Mary Kate Moore in the first act, to Marius’ haunting Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, as sung by Robert Ariza in the second, there is not a weak voice in the cast. When local valley talent and Valley Youth Theatre alumni Nick Cartell as Valjean performs Bring Him Home, the show doesn’t simply stop, it lingers in its own timeless zone. Audiences are elevated in the sound of a song so expressively delivered, the moment is transporting. This may rank as the most complete and moving rendition of Bring Him Home you’ll either see or hear.

Pictures Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

Les Miserables Continues at ASU Gammage, Tempe until Sunday, May 20

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