Epic Intimacy

With his cunning reinvigoration of 'Les Misérables,' Eric Schaeffer remains the master of his Shirlington house

by Tom Avila
Published on December 18, 2008, 12:00am | Comments

It's been some 20 years since Victor Hugo's novel of students and street hustlers took to the stage in a spectacle about poverty, true love and stolen bread. When Les Misérables made its Broadway debut in 1987, the musical quickly became identified as part of a collection of works that are now as much icons as shows. Phantom of the Opera. Into the Woods. Cats. Miss Saigon. Rent.

These were musicals that were as much about creative flourish as music or story. Crashing chandeliers. Helicopters. Songs like ''Memories'' and ''Seasons of Love'' that moved well off Broadway to become part of our national soundtrack and innumerable (and sometimes excruciatingly painful) high school talent programs.

'Les Miserable' at Signature Theatre
'Les Miserable' at Signature Theatre

Les Misérables had it all -- barricades and revolution and an inescapably infectious score. How is it, then, that Signature Theatre has decided to bring this sprawling epic into a space with just 280 seats? Should you head to Signature Theatre to hear the people sing? Or, to ask the more important question, does it work?

The answer is that, with Les Misérables, Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer remains the master of his Shirlington house.

The greatest danger facing this production, something that raises questions about its ultimate success, is the excitement that has preceded the opening.

Audience members seeking to see something entirely new will likely be disappointed. Likewise those planning to relive the experience they had in any of the houses across the globe where these musical barricades have been stormed. Signature's production is not road show nor reinvention, but a cunning reinvigoration. Schaeffer's staging of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's musical allows for fresh consideration of this theatrical elder statesman.

The story of Les Miz is one of those impossibly labyrinthine plots rendered believable only by virtue of the fact that it is so unbelievable. It is one impossible connection stacked on another impossible coincidence after another. Jean Valjean (Greg Stone) completes what would seem to be an unduly hard imprisonment for the theft of a loaf of bread. Upon leaving he is warned by Inspector Javert (Tom Zemon) that Valjean will never truly be free and will live under the mark of having been a prisoner for the rest of his days. Finding the discrimination he faces on a daily basis too much to bear, Valjean destroys his former identity and vanishes.

Leap forward 18 years and we find our ill-fated heroine Fantine (Tracy Lynn Olivera) working in a factory owned by a man who bears a striking resemblance to a certain escaped prisoner. Fantine is the good girl whose need to provide for her young, fatherless daughter has forced her to do all kinds of distasteful and unpleasant things -- from selling her hair to prostitution. Cosette, the daughter, lives with a bottom-feeder of a landlord and his even less tasteful wife and their astonishingly beautiful and adored (for now) daughter Eponine.

The lives, loves and loyalties of this small collection of characters cross, knot and come undone against the much larger fires of growing discontent over 19th century France's dismal economic divide.

With inches separating those in the front row from the impoverished mob and cast in a gloom that almost physically occupies the MAX Theatre, Signature's Les Miz trades massive scale for emotional tenor. The action is set on an imposing but not particularly innovative set grimly comprised of crumpled steel and factory windows. ''Edgy'' has unfortunately begun to acquire a visual identity as recognizable as ''shabby chic'' or ''French country.''

Also to the show's detriment, there are times when staging becomes overly confident with its own inventiveness. Portions of the opening choreography seem weakly cribbed from the traveling cast of Stomp or some minimalist performance piece. Not only do these machinations fail to gel with the show's overall feeling, they are quickly abandoned altogether, and thus feel more ill planned.

But the stage's spare quarters do allow the true strength of this production to come forward. Les Miz's success rests firmly in the hands of a cast of performers who have been given the creative space and artistic freedom to bring their own voice and emotion to its very well-known songs. Olivera's performance of ''I Dreamed a Dream'' is the first indication that something bright is at work in this production. Given the strength of her voice and the range that she has shown in the past, Olivera's capacity to bring this song full force to the MAX is unsurprising. What is unexpected is the individuality she is able to bring to a work that is so ingrained in the collective psyche of fans of this musical.

Similar accolades can and should be given to Felicia Curry as the adult Eponine, who is tasked with another of Les Miz's big numbers, ''On My Own.'' Curry's true talents blossom with ''A Little Fall of Rain,'' which she performs with Andrew Call's Marius. It is a rich, organic and gorgeously broken duet where both actors abandon pose and posture and give themselves fully to their emotions. A wracking and memorable performance from both.

Christopher Bloch and Sherri L. Edelen are Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, the comically despicable pair who run a boarding house of last resort. They are the show's clowns, characters so monumentally awful and without bounds they are living cartoons. Bloch and Edelen share a marvelous rapport with one another, though Edelen may just have the edge on things. She's awful in a really wonderful way.

Stone and Zemon also share an interesting chemistry, but their performances are undermined by the fact that neither relinquishes a single year throughout the entire show. They are preserved in amber without a hint of the fact that nearly two decades pass as they wage their war with one another. Some change in action or image would do much to remedy this and accent the musical's full scope. While this could seem to some to be a minor quibbling point, these are the things that begin to occur when watching the action play out in such an intimate space.

LES MISÉRABLES
starstarstarstar
To Jan. 25, 2009
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, Va.
$65-$87
703-573-7328
www.signature-theatre.org

Also suffering in these very close quarters is Stephanie Waters as the adult Cosette. Her restraint feels rigid and causes her performance to verge on the unemotional. In a larger space this reserve might soften into a more natural aspect of the character, but here it feels jarring and out of place.

However, it is that intimacy -- which seems in complete and utter discord with the giant sweep of Les Misérables -- that makes this a musical worth seeing again. There is something remarkable about actually feeling the percussive stomp of the revolutionaries marching to the barricades. Of being glared down by a surly mob telling you what their lives will be like ''At the End of the Day.'' Of getting a wink from one of the ''Lovely Ladies'' because she's just an arm's length away.

Signature Theatre has taken an unexpected risk by deciding to capture a musical like Les Misérables in the relatively close-quarters of the MAX Theatre. Thanks to the strength of some fine performances and the enthusiasm of a cast as ambitious as the project, it is unlikely that this run will leave many empty chairs up for grabs.