Spoilers Below - If you don't know the story of Les Miserables and want to be surprised, you will want to skip this post.
Tuesday night, Angie and I went to opening night of the Des Moines performance of Les Miserables. I was very excited as this is my favorite musical by far and it had been a long time since I had last seen it (2004 or 2005 I think). I did make Angie go see the 25th Anniversary Concert at the movie theater last fall, but instead of satisfying my appetite for Les Mis, it just made me want to see it more desperately. At the time, the 25th Anniversary National Tour was just getting underway and wasn't scheduled for any place close to Iowa. As I read over the announcement of the Des Moines Civic Center's 2012/2013 schedule a ray of light shone down and choir of angels sang in the background as I read the two words I most wanted to see: Les Mis. There were also many other great shows - Book of Mormon, War Horse, Beauty & the Beast, etc..., I was a little disappointed in the lack of The Addams Family, but all I really cared about at first was Les Mis.
Actually, I at first thought my brain was just messing with me and I had to read over the list a couple times to make sure that I actually read Les Mis. After that it was a long month waiting to get my season ticket renewal form, and then another long couple months waiting for tickets to be finalized, another long couple months to receive my tickets, and finally a relatively short wait (only a couple weeks) until the show. It was a good thing that I was so paranoid because even though I went down and handed the Civic Center my ticket order form and payment information in person - I spent almost 45 minutes that day with the ticket teller making sure that everything was handled and good to go; and they gave me all assurances that it was. But they ended up losing my information. Luckily, when they said cards would be charged on a certain date and mine wasn't;I checked back and they confirmed that they started the renewal/order process for me, but it was never completed. If I hadn't had checked, my tickets would have been released for sale to someone else at the end of the week. I was a little miffed at the time, but I am glad it was all able to be worked out in the end. Thanks for the near heart attack!
This isn't the performance that toured the country for nearly 20 years. This is the new reimagined & restaged 25th Anniversary Production. I had a little trepidation...would they ruin it? Would they cut or molest a lot of the scenes that I loved? Would the actors be any good? Attending a pre-show presentation about the history of Les Mis and it's journey from book to screen, it was mentioned that this production got rid of the stage turntable. I groaned a little. I loved the turntable and thought it was unique and a really interesting aspect of the staging of the show. I was a little bummed but told myself that it is the story and the music that make Les Miserables so great.
There were a lot of changes to the show. Did the old production need to be retooled? Emotionally, I don't think so...but intellectually, I know that the old production was big and expensive. It all just felt heavy (as I am sure it physically was) and for me that increased the feeling of epicness. I knew there had to be changes for a new production...I just don't think a current production could easily survive in this economic climate with that type of show...especially a show that is 25 years old. I am not sure how many semi trailers the old show used, but I am sure it was a lot...the turntable, the barricade devices and the rest all had to be very expensive to transport (and maintain). Again, I told myself that it would be better to have a stripped down show rather than no show at all.
The new production uses a lot of projected backgrounds which I wasn't thrilled about but I do think it is pretty neat that they used some of Victor Hugo's own artwork in creating the backgrounds. Also the projected backgrounds did a good job of creating movement in some scenes - like walking through the sewers or down a lane. I still liked the old turntable better but this did a really good job in certain scenes - Javert's death was also particularly well done with the projected backgrounds.
There was also a lot more color in the new production - costumes, backgrounds, all have a little more color in them. Cosette doesn't just wear black. Color is not necessarily a bad thing, but for it can definitely change the tone of a play. I thought it lightened the tone a little but I think it also diminished some of the dramatic uses of colors...like the student's red flag when they take to the streets. I also thought some of the colors looked a little too bright and clean - like Jean Valjean's soldier uniform.
I was disappointed at the lack of the turntable being able to show the different sides of a scene (especially the wall scene between Cosette and Marius. It was a novel way to see both points of view. But I really missed the mechanical barricade machines that would turn and twist, construct and deconstruct, and show different views of the action. The first time I saw these amazing machines, I was worried that one of the actors was going to get squished as the machines rapidly transformed while the actors climbed around on them. I would also have to say that the new production almost completely ruined Gavroche's death scene...hiding it completely behind the barricades. Yes, you know he is shot, but it doesn't have the impact that it had previously. Somehow, the stage felt really small...this was the exact opposite of the feeling that I got from the previous production (due to the turntable and awesome barricade mechanics needing room). It worked well in some scenes...like the barricade where it seemed cluttered and cramped but much of the time I just wanted the cast to spread out a bit.
The performers and the performances were good but not great. Peter Locklyer was just too slim to be the muscular Valjean of my mind. Peter had a really strong voice and could nail the loud and forceful parts. He was decent at the soft parts, but couldn't come close to matching the delicate and heartfelt-ness that Randal Keith was able to achieve. Andrew Varela as Javert matched my physical image perfectly and he had a good voice...when the song was slower. However, when the lyrics were fast paced, I thought he was a little mumbled and difficult to understand. There was also a lot of different stressing of words or changing up styles that I am not used to...for example in one part of a song, I thought Valjean was supposed be more melancholy but in this production he came off as more angry. Same with the staging...I think they were trying to show that he was working harder than everyone else so should be outraged when offered half the wage, but it kind of came off like he was a dick, taking people's work. It wasn't necessarily bad...just not the choices that I would have made with the characters.
It sounds like I had a lot of problems with this production...and it is true I didn't find this production as amazing as the previous. However, I still think it is a very good show and encourage everyone to go see it. It plays in Des Moines through Sunday evening. It is a very epic story and an epic play and well worth your time. If I had the money right now, I would be going again this week...but for now, I have to console myself with the movie that comes out in December (which looks amazing check out the trailer below) and the knowledge that Angie and I are planning to go see it at Theater Cedar Rapids in 2014. Kind of excited for that, I haven't seen anything in person besides the Broadway tours. I'm interested to see what a small local production can be.