Theatre Reviews
Photo by Philip Hamer courtesy of The Muny

First things first: I love the 1985 French opera/musical “Les Misérables.” Based on Victor Hugo’s justifiably popular 1862 novel of the same name (Upton Sinclair is said to have described it as "one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world"), “Les Misérables” (usually translated as "The Outsiders" or "The Dispossessed") is, in my view, one of the most effective pieces of musical theatre of the late 20th century.

L-R: John Riddle, Ken Page, Cecilia Snow
Photo: Philip Hamer

From the opening prisoners' chorus through the sublime finale three hours later, the show's canny combination of a conventional but memorable score (music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer) with compelling characters and situations grabs and holds your attention and emotions. Plus, its cry for social justice (which it shares with the novel) and presentation of two sharply contrasting versions of Christianity make it a work that appeals to the head as well as the heart.

Or at least it should. Certainly every one of the four previous productions I have seen since the first tour came through town in the late 1980s has done so. I had hoped the new Muny production, which runs through Sunday June 23rd, would as well.

But, as the Stones song says, “you can’t always get what you want.” On the Muny’s massive stage “Les Misérables” felt diminished. Even in a large house like the Fabulous Fox (capacity around 5,000) the show has an immediacy and emotional power that felt dissipated in the open-air theatre with over twice the seating capacity of that theatre, not counting the 1500 free seats at the back. The big ensemble scenes such as the Act I finale “One More Day” and the normally harrowing battle at the barricades lacked their usual punch, and the intimate moments (the deaths of Fantine and Éponine come to mind) felt lost.

L-R: Jordan Donica, John Riddle
Photo: Philip Hamer

Ann Beyersdorfer’s scenic design doesn’t improve matters. The main set pieces, including the usual rotating structure on the turntable, are all bare-bones ladders and stairs. Everything looks unfinished and everything looks the same. That could have been ameliorated by making more use of the Muny’s projection capabilities, especially in scenes like the Paris sewers sequence and Javert’s suicide. The latter was especially bizarre, with Javert turning and walking upstage into a bright light instead of throwing himself into the Seine.

But apparently Beyersdorfer and director Seth Sklar-Heyn wanted a stripped down minimal look, so that’s what we got. In fact, some of the more intimate scenes take place on a bare stage, robbing them of much of their power.

But enough of that.  Let’s talk about what works: Jesse Robb’s choreography and the cast. The former perfectly matched the emotional content of every scene and the latter was uniformly great.

Teal Wicks
Photo: Philip Hamer

John Riddle, a St. Louis Theater Circle award winner from last season’s “Chess,” is Jean Valjean, the ex-convict serving time for stealing bread for his starving family. He eloquently captures the character’s pain at the persecution he suffers after his parole, his change of heart after being shown mercy by the Bishop of Digne (a warmly sympathetic Ken Page), and his fierce determination to fight injustice. His voice is powerful almost to the top of its range and his acting is always convincing.

Jordan Donica is Valjean’s nemesis Javert—inflexible, fixated on sin, and convinced he’s doing God's duty by punishing the wicked. Donica’s “Stars,” Javert’s declaration of that belief, is powerful and a bit frightening, as it should be. He and Riddle are a good match, vocally and physically.

Emily Baustista
Photo: Philip Hamer

Teal Wicks is a vulnerable and moving Fantine, for whose early death Valjean is an unwitting catalyst. Emily Bautista is Éponine, dying of unrequited love for the student Marius and, eventually, from a National Guard bullet. Her “On My Own” was a true star turn, enthusiastically applauded by the audience.

Peter Neureuther’s Marius is a bit on the monochromatic side, but his Act II “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” in which he laments the deaths of this fellow radicals at the barricades, was quite well done. As his true love Cosette, adopted by Valjean as a deathbed promise to her mother Fantine, Gracie Annabelle Parker is a model of the clear-voiced, winsome heroine.

L-R: Noah Van Ess, Dan Klimko,
Peter Neureuther
Photo: Philip Hamer

Red Concepción and Jade Jones are the comically reprehensible Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, shameless champions of enlightened self-interest. They’re played just broadly enough to be funny, and they do it consistently. Alas, some of their best lines were garbled by the Muny’s sound system—a problem for much of the evening.

There are two important children’s roles in “Les Misérables”: Little Cosette and the streetwise Gavroche. As Little Cosette, Kate Appel is utterly charming in her solo “Castle on a Cloud.” As Gavroche, Will Schulte is astonishingly good. He steals every scene he’s in with his strong stage presence and fine voice.

Will Schulte and the company
Photo: Philip Hamer

The decision to add members of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus to the big ensemble numbers gives those moments impressive power, but even their famously clear enunciation can’t get past that sound system. I’m beginning to think the Muny (and possibly the Fox) should consider following Opera Theatre’s lead by using projected text.

Under the baton of Music Director James Moore, the orchestra sounded polished and powerful. And while I don’t think much of director Sklar-Heyn’s design choices, he certainly keeps the show moving and creates fine stage pictures.

John Riddle, Gracie Annabelle Parker
Photo: Phlilip Hamer

If you have never seen “Les Misérables” I doubt that this production will make you a fan. And if you’re already a fan, I suspect you might feel as disappointed as I did. Still, the message is one we all need to hear.

“The Christian ideal,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in 1910, “has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Certainly both Victor Hugo’s novel and the musical based on it are testaments to how difficult it is, while our current political culture seems to demonstrate what happens when it’s left untried. I’d like to believe that a show like “Les Misérables” can change hearts and minds, but given the infinite human capacity for compartmentalization and denial, I’m not sanguine about that notion.

“Les Misérables” continues at the Muny in Forest Park nightly at 8:15 through Sunday. For information on this and upcoming productions, visit the Muny web site.

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