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Theater Review (Washington, DC): Les Misérables at the National Theatre

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Somehow I managed to miss out on the phenomenon known as Les Misérables, even though it is one of the most popular Broadway shows in the world and the traveling production has performed in Washington, DC on numerous occasions.

 

Peter Lockyer as Jean Valjean in the New 25th Anniversary of Les Misérables
Peter Lockyer as Jean Valjean in the New 25th Anniversary Production of Les Misérables. National Theatre, December 12 – 30. Photo credit: Sarah L. Voison.

 

Since 1986, Les Misérables has played Washington nine times (the 10th will be this December) – three times at the Kennedy Center; five times at the National, and once at Signature Theatre for a total of 78 weeks and more than 624 performances. Over 84,000 people have seen the musical in Washington for a box office gross of $53,226,585. So to say the show is popular here in the DMV (District, Maryland, Virginia) area would be an understatement.

The famous musical is going to become even more popular once the new movie comes out on Christmas Day. Last Friday night I took in Producer Cameron Mackintosh’s new production at Washington, DC’s National Theater and it is a shining winner. This show is one of those productions where the power moments are just that: raw, unfiltered, and far outweighing some of the show’s pitfalls.

 

Andrew Varela as Javert
Andrew Varela as Javert in the New 25th Anniversary Production of Les Misérables.National Theatre, December 12 – 30. Photo credit: Deen van Meer.

 

Based on the Victor Hugo classic (at 1,400 pages it is one of the longest novels ever written) by the same name, it is a story about redemption against all odds.

Peter Lockyer does an amazing job as the show’s hero Jean Valjean, a prisoner who escapes after spending 19 years on a prison chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread. He is chased throughout his life by Inspector Javert (a big, imposing looking Andrew Varela). Every time his life gets on track, there’s Javert to remind him that he is an escaped convict. You can feel Valjean’s longing for redemption and understanding during “Who Am I” and “One Day More.”

His life becomes an epic adventure, as he must always stay several steps ahead of Javert while trying to do the right thing. At one point he becomes a factory owner and Mayor of a small town, where he encounters Fantine (Genevieve Leclerc), a former employee who becomes a prostitute to provide for her daughter Cosette (played by young Erin Cearlock and older Lauren Wiley).

 

Master of the House performed by Les Miserables Cast
“Master of the House” performed by the Company of the New 25th Anniversary Production of Les Misérables. National Theatre, December 12 – 30. Photo credit: Deen van Meer.

 

For good or ill, this is a musical in every sense of the word. There is not one line of spoken dialog; the story is told entirely through song. So it requires paying extra attention to the lyrics to really understand what is going on.

This is a problem especially in the beginning when you are trying to figure out the characters and the point of the story, not to mention that the music in the beginning isn’t very good, nor engaging. Fantine is such a small, but vital role and while technically proficient, it seemed like Leclerc was holding back. You can see her focusing more on the performance. and not necessarily on the emotions behind her two biggest moments, the classic “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Fantine’s Death.”

This is where the shadow of the movie comes in. Anne Hathaway does such an amazing job with these two numbers that, for awhile, it will be hard to imagine anyone topping the raw emotional edge she brought to them. I just kept thinking, “Genevieve Leclerc is no Anne Hathaway.” 

 


“One Day More” performed by the Company of the New 25th Anniversary Production of Les Misérables. National Theatre, December 12 – 30. Photo credit: Deen van Meer.

 

Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell do an amazing job juggling the large cast (38 people, including five children) and getting amazing performances out of everyone. Some of the standouts include Brianna Carson-Goodman as Eponine, who does an amazing job on the difficult “On My Own.” Other great moments include the cast renditions of the powerful “Red and Black” and the crowd-pleasing, rousing anthem “Do You Hear The People Sing.”

Fine individual moments include the whimsical “Master of the House” performed by the evil Thénardier (Timothy Gulan) and his Wife (Shawna M. Hamic). These two provide much needed comic relief.

Matt Kinley’s very detailed set design and Andreane Neofitou’s costume design transport you back in time. While this production isn’t on the same scale as other versions of this show, the creative team makes really good use of National Theatre’s “smaller” stage. The show uses over 55,000 pounds of scenery, and over 5,000 costume pieces.

All of this is put to good use to bring to life some of the show’s most iconic sets, including the town, Thénardier’s inn, and others. The barricade scene is probably one of the show’s most affecting moments. Paul Constable’s lighting work is at times stunning.

While the subject matter is depressing, the show is surprisingly uplifting and never sinks under the weight of its weighty material. The fact that Jean Valjean went through all of this turmoil and still maintained his humanity and his desire for redemption is inspiring. You can’t help but leave the theater hopeful and even feeling a little bit better about mankind.

Les Misérables is playing at Washington, DC’s National Theatre through Dec. 30. For a video sneak peek of the new 25th anniversary production, please visit here. For information on the film version visit the movie’s website.

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About Michelle Alexandria