Review: Les Miserables at Signature Theater

The Thinker by Rodin

Can one see the musical Les Miserables too many times? Perhaps. Les Miserables remains my favorite musical weaving some of the best tunes, lyrics, stories and characters into a three-hour musical that is almost impossible to dislike. If you do not find yourself crying at least once during the show, you are either Dick Cheney or have ice water in your veins.

I plunged into my fourth Les Miserables experience today for an important reason. While I had seen it three times before, I was so far up in the rafters that I felt like I was missing something. Since it was being restaged at Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia, this meant that I could finally see an intimate staging of the musical. In fact, I was able to garner front row seats for today’s matinee. My wife and I were on Left Stage, seats 1 and 3.

This was our first time to Signature Theater. It is not exactly the Kennedy Center Opera House, which is an advantage. We were one of what could be no more than two hundred fifty people in the small black box theater. Pretty much any seat you choose is going to feel intimate, but with front row seats and my feet comfortable resting under the stage, intimate theater took on a whole new experience. We were within spitting distance but really any seat on the lower level is technically within spitting distance. I frequently had actors within touching distance and even singing in my face. Wow!

In fact, on a smaller stage, there is no way to render the full Broadway theatrical version. It is just as well because while the staging was innovative twenty years ago, it had gotten somewhat dated. Rest assured though that the poor look as threadbare and as miserable in this production as they did in the original production.

I also had to wonder if the quality would suffer on a smaller stage. It is expensive to stage even on a small stage, as it requires a large ensemble and orchestra. Even with $75 tickets, I had to wonder if they could cover expenses, since the theater is new and doubtless, all the actors were earning union wages. Thankfully, the quality did not suffer at all. In fact, smaller stagings like Signature’s may be the best way to get the Les Miserables experience. For Les Mis is a powerful human story. No matter how well it is done, it loses something unless you are close enough to see the acting as well as hear the music. At Signature, you cannot help but get both.

The orchestra was excellent but at times was so loud it overpowered the actors. As with any production, some actors did better in their roles than others. Overall, any fan of Les Miserables will appreciate the quality of the performances. While some of the actors (like Tom Zemon, who had played his role on Broadway) are nationally known, most of the actors were more regionally known. Thankfully, the Washington area is blessed with hundreds of excellent actors. I doubt that anyone who saw the production on Broadway will feel cheated by this staging.

One thing was clear from this show: it was uniformly well acted as well as sung. (In my mind, this is the key difference between musicals and operas.) Many of those performing in their roles were the best I have seen in the part. Here is a rundown of some of the major actors and how I felt they did:

  • Christopher Bloch (Thenardier) – A. Absolutely the best Thenardier I have seen in the role. His performance is not to be missed.
  • Rachel Boyd (Young Cosette) – A. Her role was short (she only gets to sing one song) but she was a heartbreaking cutie with big doe-like eyes and a real stage presence. You wanted to leap on the stage and hug her.
  • Andrew Call (Marius) – B. Competent in the role but his performance is not particularly noteworthy.
  • Felicia Curry (Eponine) – A. An African American Eponine took some getting used to but Ms. Curry shines in the part. Her voice is not quite as lovely as others who have sung the part (Lea Salonga would be hard to beat) but her acting is to be savored. Mmm.
  • Sherri Edelen (Madame Thenardier). A. A worthy contender with anyone on Broadway who played the part.
  • Tracy Lynn Olivera (Fantine). B. I personally was delighted to see a plus size woman in the role of Fantine. Usually she is played as someone who is disheveled but impossibly model-like. For the first time, I found the stage image of Fantine matched my mental image.
  • Jordi Parry (Gavroche). C. Meaning no disrespect, but he is a boy after all.
  • Chris Sizemore (Enjoras). B. Typically Enjoras is cast a bit taller and more handsome, so in a way it was nice to see Enjoras looking a bit more down to earth.
  • Greg Stone (Valjean). B. The whole story of course evolves around Jean Valjean, so his role is crucial. Nothing wrong with Stone’s performance but nothing exceptional either. He reminded me a bit of a young Liam Neeson.
  • Stephanie Walters (Cosette). A. Usually Cosette comes across as a mere star-struck wallflower. Not this time. Walters provides real depth to her role. For a change she was not overshined by Eponine. Watch the way she lunges for the gate while she waits for Marius. Lovely.
  • Tom Zemon (Javert). B. My wife had a higher opinion of Zemon’s acting than I did. He was suitably grave and chisel-faced, which seems to be a prerequisite for the part. I was hoping in his death scene to see more anguish from his decision kill himself than I did.
  • The rest of the cast in general. A. They were bubbling over with enthusiasm. It helps to have a largely fresh cast for whom this is all new material. It makes a difference.

Expect a few songs to be tightened up and a few scenes changed a bit, but this is all for the better. The show has been extended through February 22nd, so if you are a fan of the musical and live in the Washington area, I recommend getting tickets. You will not be disappointed. I think you will find that the Signature Theater crew breathed new life into this amazing but somewhat overplayed musical.

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