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Les Miserables at University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program (Review) April 18, 2014

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals.
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There is some lovely music-making taking place at Power Center this weekend (don’t bother looking for tickets, UMMT’s Les Miserables has been sold out for months).  There are also some problems with this musical spectacular.

Performances are top notch, as is expected for this musical theater program. The full orchestra is superb (though it could stand some amplification of the bass). The set, properties, and costumes (professional rentals from Music Theatre of Wichita) look terrific and cost them a million bucks to rent/transport/install (okay, not a million bucks, but more than any other theater program in the State of Michigan and possibly the tri-state area could ever afford).  Lighting is spectacular (despite a few missed cues on opening night).

Conor Ryan plays a remarkable Jean Valjean (and his “Bring Him Home” was superb). Bobby Conte Thornton sings a wonderful Javert and acts well. Sean Seymour is a particularly strong Marius and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is second only to Bring Him Home as the musical highlight of the show. I also very much liked Kalia Medeiros and Mackenzie Orr as Madame and Mr Thenardier. The rest of the cast, leads to ensemble, are very strong but these folks are the standouts in this production. As in all productions of Les Mis the guys have much more to do than the girls.

But there were some big problems on opening night, not the least of which was poor sound design – missing mic cues (I’ve never seen that happen at a UM Musical Theatre production and certainly never at this level of problem), levels that are inconsistent, and poor balance. Credit the terrific student cast that could usually be heard even without their mics.  Also problematic were several special effects and sound cues (most egregious was a missing gunshot sound vital to the drama in Act II).

Guest Director Joe Locarro (who has appeared in Les Mis on Broadway and on tour), has created a tear-less slick-looking production that somehow pulsed with efficiency but lacked emotion. I have never before made it through A Little Fall Of Rain without tearing up, but here nothing. Its also a bit overly bombastic — over the years, Les Mis is one show in particular which has ramped up the” Stand And Belt at the Top Of Your Lungs” school of ballad singing, and its ramped up here as well. Its a bit too loud for the teacup-shaped Power Center. That’s also one of the reasons that Bring Him Home and Empty Chairs worked so well – instead of shouting to the rafters, the nuance of the vocals enhanced the numbers.

It should also be noted that this set was designed to be used without legs and masking — because of the cavernous size of the Power Center stage, black legs and borders have been brought in to cover the gaps at the side of the front set units — this results in blocked sitelines in many scenes for anyone sitting in the side sections house right or house left.

Overall, the show is enjoyable and slick and professional looking — as we have been spoiled in Ann Arbor to come to expect at UMMT shows — in fact, they are usually indistinguishable from Broadway tour productions. But in this instance, all this efficiency and money can’t hide what is in essence an emotionless evening that might leave you cold.


Les Miserables 25th Anniversary tour is, in a word, Perfect (Fisher Theater Detroit) – Review (Updated 11/11/11) March 26, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour, Detroit, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals.
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Sometimes you see a show, even a show that is now in it’s 25th year, and you just can’t describe it in any other way except “perfect” — such is the tour production currently on display at the Fisher Theater in Detroit.

With a finely-tuned ensemble cast; spectacular set design that out-Les Mis’s original turntable set; and sound and lighting design that are knockout spectacular, this is a Les Mis to be savored and enjoyed. The production breezes along at a fast-paced 2 hours 50 minutes of sheer Broadway spectacle.

The sell-out crowd at the Fisher was on its feet before the cast had even returned for their curtain call — and its well-deserved. Joe Tokarz (at today’s performance) sang a spectacular Jean Valjean. Andrew Varela turns in a commanding Javert. Betsy Morgan makes a straight-forward Fantine. Shawna Hamic and Michael Kostroff are delightfully nasty as the Thenardiers; Chasten Harmon plays a love-struck but not love-weakened Eponine; Jenny Latimer sings Cosette with lush clear tone; Jeremy Hays is a fine Enjolras; and Justin Scott Brown is one of the strongest performers I have ever witnessed play Marius — his growth from idealistic student to battle-hardened adult makes for a tremendous actors journey, and the audience eats it up.

This is a less-gimmicky Les Miserables than the original turntable production. (For the record, yes you DO miss seeing what’s on the other side of the barricade  in what was one of the original productions most dramatic moments). Here clear white light is used instead for dramatic effect – and it works spectacularly.

This set design would have been impossible 25 years ago — projection and integrated lighting design have come that far in the quarter century since we first saw this show. There were audible gasps from the audience as the projection moves underground, into the sewers, through a chase sequence from shadow to shadow, chamber to chamber. The sequence from the Barricades through the sewers and then onto Javert’s suicide from the Pont on the Seine is pure theater magic. It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve seen on stage in many years.

Do not hesitate to go see this Les Miserables — even if you think you know this show inside out, you haven’t seen it like this. Not only re-imagined, the show feels as new and exciting as it did when it first arrived; you will thank yourself for going. This is riveting theater, and the best tour I have seen in a long long time. Hours later, I am still in thrall of what I saw this afternoon. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime cast and production that is simply stated “perfect.”

UPDATE 11/11/11 — Just a brief update — Les Miserables has returned to the SE Michigan area again, and is currently at the Stranahan Theater in Toledo. J. Mark McVey has returned to the part of Jean Valjean, and he is outstanding — his vocal performance is spectacular, and the new physicality of this production allows him to perform in ways he never did in his 2900 plus Broadway performances of Les Mis. He’s amazing. Unfortunately, the superb Justin Scott Brown in the Marius role has left the tour, and his replacement Max Quinlan is a Joe Jonas sound-alike/look-alike, and he does not bring the same qualities that Mr. Brown did to the part. He’s adequate, but not exceptional. The tour will also return to the area a third time this winter at the Wharton Center in East Lansing. If anything, the physical production of the show looks even better — everything looks tighter, moves faster, and sounds great. The show travels with its own sound system, so no matter where you see it, you will hear the high quality of these performers.