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Les Misérables — Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

LM_1Regional theater productions of the perennial Broadway staple, “Les Misérables,” have confirmed how durable Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer’s musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 19th century epic is.

While even the Broadway version has been downsized to a more compact, less lavish form, the regionals, now including the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, have found a way to make “Les Misérables” intimate while retaining its epic sweep. Dennis Razze’s production does so by limiting full-out grandeur to a few rousing production numbers and concentrating on the people who represent the various factions of a France that, in 1832, is once more embroiled in civil conflict between rigid, autocratic forces, as embodied by the doggedly puritanical Inspector Javert, and Parisian

citizens who long for the republicanism that never took root following the botched 1789 revolution, as personified by Enjolras and his fellow students. In the midst of this struggle Hugo and his adapters place the story of Jean Valjean, a one-time convict who has acquired wealth and respectability but who must hide from a strict and vengeful Javert, who is determined to return him to prison on a parole violation.

Valjean’s journey from the jail where we first see him toiling unmercifully to a quiet, mature seclusion in the Paris neighborhood of St. Michel, in 1832 a warren of tenements housing students, the poor, and a panoply of rascals, is the centerpiece of “Les Miz,” and Razze never fails to keep this noble character in our focus as his production also provides an overview of all that concerns French partisans and the opportunist rapscallion, Thenardier. Of course, there’s time for romance, and the love between Marius Pontmercy and Valjean’s ward, Cosette, played beautifully by Brad Greer and Delaney Westfall resonates throughout Razze’s staging, as does the unrecognized, unrequited longing of Eponine, played with spunk and empathy-eliciting downheartedness by Rachel Potter.

Razze builds his show on strong images, some of which go too far, as in the exaggeratedly brutal whippings and gratuitously overdone fights that place in relation to the luckless Fantine at Valjean’s factory and on Paris’s red-lit streets.

From various tableaux, you get an informing, involving sense of a Paris teeming with activity ranging from political intrigue to thievery and connivance on the hoof. Razze is especially strong in depicting the student rebellion, and Enjolras’s stirring calls to action. Choreographer Stephen Casey, always an asset, adds to the build of the student’s plea with the escalating fervor he gives to “Les Miz’s” most important numbers, “The People’s Song,” and “One More Day,” for which the forward-backward marching motion pays homage to the original 1985 musical staging by Kate Flatt.

For all of the size of these mushrooming numbers, the core intent shines through, and you simultaneously identify with individuals, particularly Enjolras, Valjean, Marius, and Cosette, which being energized and roused to partisanship by the sincere and passionate ardor of the group. Three cheers to Razze, Casey, and company for keeping all so invigorating and moving.

Even more involving strength comes from Razze’s male cast.

It was interesting to me to see how much the men domination the Pennsylvania Shakespeare production considering it was the women — Elisa Matthews as Fantine, Lauren Cupples as Cosette, and Sarah Moya as Eponine — that made Jesse Cline’s “Les Misérables so notable a success at the Media Theatre last winter.

In Razze’s production, Westfall and Potter come to the fore, but it is the work of Mike Eldred as Valjean, Jeremiah James as Javert, Greer as Marius, and Jon Berry as Enjolras that propel the show to intense and admirable heights as Eldred conveys pronounced fortitude and benevolence, James rivets with Javert’s single-minded zeal and attempt at being a nationalist spy against the barricaded partisans, Greer so thoroughly emanates romance as Cosette’s suitor, a dedicated partisan, and Eponine’s friend, and Berry radiates conviction, leadership, and courage as the committed Enjolras.

The characters involve you in their individual plights so keenly, scenes concentrating on the small, personal moments with Razze’s “Les Miz” are charged with the emotion and the immediately with which Hugo endowed his story. Intimate scenes always have emotional impact that large numbers do not interrupt. The close relationships between Marius and Cosette or Valjean and Cosette engage as engrossingly as Casey’s billowing production numbers thrill. Razze’s production seamlessly meshes the quiet and the grand in a way that fulfills.

NealBoxOddly enough, the sequences that seem to intrude as the ones involving the Thenardiers. Tim Gulan and Eliza Gilbert supply their required quotient of comic relief, but somehow in Razze’s staging, the Thenardiers seem extraneous beyond the scene in which they surrender Young Cosette to Valjean. For all that they are a catalyst to important action, such as the street skirmish during which Marius and Cosette notice each other and Thenardier informs Javert of Valjean’s identity, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare produced renders the Thenardiers as functionaries. They neither annoy, charm, nor add texture to Boublil, or Hugo’s, story. They fulfill a necessary literary need and fade into the Eric T, Haugen’s murky lights.

It isn’t that Gulan and Gilbert don’t do their numbers well, and Lisa Zinni’s costume for the Thenardiers in the wedding scene is the best I’ve seen in more than 30 encounters with “Les Miz,” but that their entertainment value is precluded by how much more Eldred, James, Greer, Westfall, and Berry interest you in finding out about Valjean, Javert, Marius, Cosette, and the students. We just never care about the Thernardiers or need the levity or commentary on humankind they are meant to provide. All other elements of Razze’s production, integrate so well, even the overintensified factory and prostitution scenes, the Thenardiers looks like an extra act on the vaudeville bill rather than a critical part of “Les Miz’s” story.

The finest and most nuanced of the raft of excellent performances is Jeremiah James’s watchful yet introspective turn as Javert.

James is not content to rely on Javert’s obsessive tracking of Valjean, who he believes can never reform and should languish in jail for ever having committed a crime, however inconsequential or sentimentally motivated. In his posture and manner, James conveys that stubborn self-righteousness. His Javert is one who recognizes no middle ground or compromise. His seriousness is never leavened, his duty never done.

You see this is the set of James’s jaw and in the restlessness of his fingers when he thinks he is close to nabbing Valjean and restoring him to servitude. James’ s Javert can barely listen when Valjean is explaining his responsibility to Fantine and Cosette. He is waiting for Schönberg’s music to cease, so he can pounce on the man whose only trait, as far as Javert is concerned, is he eluded “justice.”

James’s feverishness and dedicated call to duty radiate from the stage. You are opposed to what he wants, so you don’t seethe with him, but you remain wary of the intensity of his rage and the limit of his patience. This Javert is a genuine threat to Valjean and his freedom. No matter how familiar you with “Les Miz,” you are nervous this Javert, borrowing strength from his determination, will overcome Valjean and reroute Hugo’s story right there and then.

Just being able to bring such thoughts to light is a remarkable achievement, and James will go further in proving his mettle and versatility as both an actor and a portrayer of Javert.

As unbending, pious, and convinced of his unflawed rectitude as Javert is, James manages to make him charming when he scales the partisans’ battlements to offer intelligence as an alleged spy. It isn’t only James playing a role, It’s Javert using his cunning as a character to gain the trust and consequently mislead Enjolras and his confreres about the Nationalist’s combat strategy. James’s Javert can muster conspiratorial sincerity and speak in a way that is constructive and persuasive to Enjolras. In Razze’s production, Gavroche’s exposure to Javert becomes especially crucial because you see much the partisans are trusting him. As James’s performance makes you think they should!

Then there Is Javert’s humiliation at twice being thwarted and twice having his life spared by a generous Valjean.

In most productions of “Les Misérables,” this is taken for granted. The story says Javert becomes despondent and ends his life by plunging into the cold, dark Seine. Let’s follow the story.

Not James. Of course, he fulfills Hugo’s plot, but he lets you see Javert’s despair and inability to reconcile Valjean’s charity with his once having been a convicted, incarcerated thief.

James makes you understand and feel for Javert, who is not the type to elicit pity and probably engendered little of it. While it is contenting to know Valjean can live in peace unhunted and free to come out his self-imposed exile, James makes it sad and touching to see Javert perish in way as disciplined and unyielding as the code by which he lived.

Though rushed a bit in the staging, Javert’s drowning is strikingly poignant. James brings you to care for Hugo’s puritanically self-righteous villain, and that is quite a theatrical and emotional achievement.

Mike Eldred makes you like Valjean even as he remains a miscreant and absconds with the only riches of a country priest who gives him solace, food, and shelter as he tries to makes a living in France as a parolee, his prison number, 24601, tattooed on his chest and his yellow ticket-of-leave advertising he was once imprisoned though never representing his harmlessness.

Eldred is direct is his approach to Valjean. He plays him as an observant man of honor, a sober man who likes order and who embraces simplicity. Eldred’s Valjean projects his benevolence and desire to be of help to others as intensely as James’s assured resolve brands Javert as one whose suspicious, corrective nature will never lead to a moment of peace or happiness.

The sweet, yet efficent magnanimity of Valjean’s nature reveals itself best in Eldred’s scenes with the dying Fantine and the well-cared-for Cosette.

Eldred is all compassion as he learns of his unintentional, unknown part in her downfall. He looks at Cosette with love and affection and provides luxury and safety for her even as he must maintain his secrecy and privacy. He lets us see the excellence of Valjean’s heartfelt compassion. Eldred’s Valjean is open. If his day-to-day existence depends on his staying in shadows and avoiding Javert, his dealing with others is plain, fair, and good-hearted.

More even than the way Eldred looks adoringly at Cosette is the shrewd evaluation he makes of Marius and his cohorts at the barricade. Eldred makes a cool assessment of Greer’s Marius before deciding in his favor and seeing what it is, beyond Greer’s handsomeness, that has stirred Cosette’s heart.

Valjean is a gallant fighter, and Eldred’s scenes at the barricades register as natural and true. This Valjean steers clear of Javert but is not afraid of the officer and meets him on equal terms every time policeman and prey come eye to eye.

Eldred’s Valjean is competent and resourceful. He has purpose and presence of mind when he releases the captured Javert and lets him depart from the barricades unscathed. He is just as plain with Javert when he meets him in the Paris sewers while using that conduit to get a wounded Marius to safety and recovery.

Both James and Eldred act their parts completely and with integrity. In addition to portraying their characters so thoroughly, each is an outstanding singer that brings out all of the meaning of Kretzmer’s lyrics.

Eldred has the daunting task of singing the beautiful but challenging “Bring Him Home” and does so with fitting emotional impact. James makes Javert’s declaration, “Stars,” into an anthem of action and determination.

Delaney Westfall brings a special attractiveness to Cosette. Rather than an innocent, sheltered flower, she conveys a Cosette that had been educated, well-bred, and eager to explore the world, There’s a vibrant curiosity in Westfall’s eye that show Cosette had breadth of character and native intelligence. This look give Marius something to notice and respond to. It goes beyond Cosette’s, or Westfall’s, beauty.

Westfall’s Cosette seems a partner to Greer’s Marius. You know she won’t be an ornament but a companion with whom he can discuss books, ideas, and life.

LM_15Brad Greer is the dashing gentleman and serious student who knows how to relax and be less formal with Eponine and who can be natural and charmingly romantic to Cosette. Greer shows Marius’s dilemma about whether to travel with Cosette and Valjean to England or to head to the barricades and stand by his fellow partisans. As with James, Greer has more going on than he shows on Marius’s surface.

Jon Berry is fervent as Enjolras. He is an active leader who can rally his fellow students and convince them, through his sincerity, of the their cause’s honorability. Berry’s Enjolras is a dashing and commanding in meetings as he is on the barricade where his courage and resolve influence the participation of so many others.

Again, Westfall, Greer, and Berry have voices that match their abilities to create affecting realistic characters.

There’s something wistful about Rachel Potter’s Eponine. With all the streetwise toughness the character exudes, you see the moony romantic who breaks your heart with her plaintive versions of “On My Own” and “A Little Drop of Rain.”

Potter shows you Eponine’s heart actively breaking even as she assists Marius in finding and wooing Cosette. You see Potter’s Eponine knows she will never had Marius as a lover. Her streetish ways and unformed grace, so different from Cosette’s neatness and poise, will prevent chances of mutual love.

Potter also conveys Eponine’s feisty side.

By now the absence of any significant mention of Fantine or “I Dreamed a Dream” must be glaring. Fantine is so integral to “Les Misérables,” so important to the story and Valjean’s promise to care for Cosette.

Let me begin my saying I think Kate Fahrner’s performance was the single redeeming factor in the Walnut’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” a few seasons back. I also enjoyed Fahrner in the Walnut’s “Elf.” Fahrner is a good actress who may have stumbled at the challenge of Fantine, a difficult role because she must convey so many moods, have a heartbreaking death scene, and go through a period of wretched diminishment and disgrace.

I was buoyed when I saw Fahrner’s name in the program but was surprised how unlike James, Berry, and Westfall, she brought almost no texture to the character. Fantine, the saddest, worst used character in all of “Les Misérables,” is the one who comes off the least sympathetically.

Yes, you feel for Fantine as she sinks ever further in a life of confusion and desperation. How can one not, knowing that Fantine was an innocent young girl that was wronged by a man who impregnated her and fled? How can you not have pity on a woman who incurs the jealousy of others to the point they relish the chance to destroy her? Fantine is a delicate flower to must find the steel in her spine to survive. And can’t.

Fahrner conveys none of this. Her performance stays at the surface. The degradation and remorse Fantine experiences never registers, never informs Fahrner’s facial expressions or movements. There’s not volume or intensity to the character. She’s a drifter in her own story, one she dominates for several scenes.

You can argue Fantine is ill-equipped for the hardness of life and does waft aimlessly from one squalid situation to another until she’s so inured to disgrace, anguish no longer matters. Or gets through the little armor Fantine has to defend herself from her woeful predicament.

Fahrner gives a performance devoid of texture. The sympathy she engenders comes from the authors’ plot line and not from anything Fahrner does to make Fantine appealing, despondent, or tragic.

Fahrner is far from incompetent or unacceptable. She is credible enough as Fantine and conveys the woman’s character traits. She just doesn’t bring anything extra or moving to her performance. She doesn’t enhance Fantine or embody her in a way that makes one care about, as well as, notice her sad, unfortunate sight.

“I Dreamed a Dream’s is sung with no conviction, with not attitude or pain informing his lyrics. I enjoyed that Fahrner did the song is a chest voice, a tone I find more natural and engaging thanfull soprano,, but I kept wondering where the emotion was between the lines. Tnis is a woman singing about her disillusion with life and the failures of humankind to bring her joy and favorable outcomes. There’s no passion, hurt, disappointment, or dejection in Fahrner’s voice or interpretation. The song is heard and makes its point but without distinction, without calling attention to the overview it is of Fantine’s life.

Razze, as mentioned, does best when working with the simplest of scenes. Complicated sequences lead most of the time to excesses, particularly of onstage violence. In one instance, Razze’s choices make you wonder whether it’s you or the script that went awry.

One confusing passage comes when Thenardier, miffed because Javert intervened before he could either rob or discredit Valjean, plans a burglary that will yield treasure and may even mean the taking of a life. The heist is planned for the exact day Eponine leads Marius to Valjean’s hidden estate where he can arrange an introduction to Cosette.

The setting for this scenes is usually a high wall gated in ornamental wrought iron that allows you to see into Valjean’s refuge.

The gate, of course, is locked, and visitors are discouraged.

Marius arrives ahead of Thenardier’s hooligans, scales the wall at a low point, and enters the garden where encounters Cosette. Usually, she is reading. In Razze’s production, she’s taking a stroll. But her specific activity is of no moment. She’s alone and musing, actually of Marius and life beyond her father’s cloistered estate. Upon seeing each other, Marius and Cosette renew their infatuation. They are able to introduce themselves and exchange pleasantries that lead to love. It’s a touching scene.

But it has to remain on one side of the gated wall.

Razze ends up treating the wall as if it’s the hapless rude mechanical who portrays such a barrier Valjean’s property or outside it, and never serves its purpose as a dramatic tool or real estate.

No one has to breach the wall, only to walk around it. Thenardier is already on Valjean’s side when Eponine distracts him and takes a beating for being where she’s not wanted and for screaming to warn Marius of the marauders’ approach.

Meanwhile, as I said, Thenardier is already on Valjean’s property. His confrontation with Eponine has to take place on the opposite side, or there’s no reason Thenardier shouldn’t procede with this original plan. He has to physically and palpably thwarted, but Razze’s staging has made the barriers between safe and breached ground unclear.

Then, to make matters worse and more wrongheaded, he allows Cosette to take Marius through a door that leads to Valjean’s house where they will protected from Thenardier’s attackers.

Think about it (because Razze didn’t). A single, virginal young woman who has been purposely kept from society and knows nothing substantive about sexual matters, takes a young man into the house of the father who has sheltered her and would disdain such behavior as wanton?

Never! The one place Cosette cannot take Marius in the house. He must escape some other where. Valjean may be French, but he would be more livid at his house being violated than his property, and he would be homicidal at the thought a libidinous man was alone with his daughter unbeknownst to him under his nose, and his roof.

The choice is untenable. It’s not a director’s option. It’s just plain wrong.

I’m making more of Razze’s mistake than it’s worth. The audience was only interested in the plot action, and I alone was concerned with directorial inanities. But the glitch shows that Razze, thought he mounted a good production, is not the most thoughtful, careful, or logical of stagers. There are other passages he botches, such as not having Cosette or Valjean carrying a water pale when they return to the Thenardiers’ inn after their first meeting. They do not mar the action or cause one to be confused about anything in the production, but they take away from the meticulousness of the proceedings and distract those, comme moi, who do notice.

The above objections are cavils, They don’t harm the overall effect of Razze’s production which, in general and more importantly, moving and powerful.

Steve TenEyck’s set allows for fluidity and specificity. Eric T. Hauger’s lighting often makes a critical difference in the mood or suspense of a scene. Martha R. Ruskai’s wigs and makeup is evocative and allows several performers to flow seamlessly from character to character. Lisa Zinni’s costumes were perfect.

“Les Misérables runs through Sunday, June 28, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in the Labuda Arts Center at DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, in Center Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $75 to $25 and can be ordered by calling 610-282-WILL (610-282-9455) or by visiting www.pashakespeare.org.

 

 

 

 

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