By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Like hope, Old Faithful and Vanna White, "Les Miserables" springs eternal.
Just when you thought it had gasped its last, in the guise of a farewell national tour and the end of its (return) engagement on Broadway, the warhorse rears up and whinnies as if it never meant to neigh goodbye.
For here it is, back on the boards, in an entirely original staging by Eric Schaeffer and Karma Camp for Signature Theatre. You didn't know it needed one, did you? Well, then, there's more aggravating news: It's bloody good.
Schaeffer has cast intelligently, assembling a passel of exceptional voices for this sweeping musical epic about the trials and triumphs of novelist Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean, the Parisian people's hero, pursued by the law for the petty crime of stealing a loaf of bread. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's five-hanky extravaganza requires the actors to leave their hearts on the stage, and so they do, in the company's trademark intimate style.
Andrew Call's fervent Marius, Tom Zemon's ruggedly single-minded Inspector Javert and, most winningly, Felicia Curry's mellifluous gamine Eponine, exemplify in standout fashion the skill set of this exemplary ensemble. As Fantine, the tragic heroine reduced to prostitution, Tracy Lynn Olivera delivers a lovely rendition of the stirring "I Dreamed a Dream." And in his octaves-ranging portrayal of Valjean, Greg Stone proves to be a sterling vocal anchor for a tale of virtue under fire.
Admittedly, things start off a bit oddly in the effort to rethink the musical for a small space. (Gone, for instance, is that redoubtable turntable, on which "Les Miz" traditionally has spun.) Spreading the audience around three-fourths of a crudely rounded stage, Schaeffer and set designer Walt Spangler thrust the action virtually into our laps. The setup works commendably, even if the first image is a "Huh?" The prologue, set during Valjean's harsh prison term, has inmates tugging on wires connected to dining-room chairs, which are repeatedly raised and lowered as the bare-chested actors grunt out the notes of the opening number.
The props will remain suspended under the lighting grid until the Parisian students die at the barricades in Act 2, and Marius sings his doleful "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." Then the chairs descend to midair and dangle there. And that is it with the chairs. If some sort of link is being proposed, between the prisoners and the students, one is tempted to say that the concept doesn't sit particularly well.
Otherwise, happily, Schaeffer sticks to the blueprint, which permits "Les Miz" to achieve its promised emotional crescendo. (The reinvented manner of Javert's suicide, presented here on a metal platform that rises in a halo of red, is one welcome clarification.) As staged by Camp, his longtime choreographer, the Act 1 finale, "One Day More," an aurally cascading number that ties together the major subplots, sends the audience into intermission on a harmonious high.
The show is another example of how Washington companies are ratcheting up expectations for the human sound in their musicals. Along with Barbara Walsh's double-barreled turn as the patrician Edith Beale and wacky Little Edie in Studio Theatre's "Grey Gardens," and the galvanizing ensemble headed by Alice Ripley in Arena Stage's "Next to Normal," Signature's "Les Miz" is helping to routinize a new local standard for consistency in vocal performance. One hopes that level can be sustained.
Some of that talent emanates from these parts (Olivera, Curry) and a lot is imported. Curry, in fact, the key power source in MetroStage's "Stephen Schwartz Project" earlier this year, makes one of the more vibrant impressions in "Les Miz." Singing the dulcet, pop-inflected solo "On My Own," Curry has perhaps the evening's truest breakout moment, entrancing both for musicality and star quality.
The most arresting feature of Spangler's set is a massive wall of opaque windowpanes, some of them shattered, looming over the twisted piles of rubble that will be augmented for the strongly staged scenes on the barricades. The dozen or so actors playing the students, from Chris Sizemore's Enjolras to Adam Ethan Grabau's Grantaire, make up an effective chorus. As the dastardly low characters, the Thenardiers, Christopher Bloch and Sherri L. Edelen demonstrate once again why their presence automatically instills confidence.
The inspired lighting design by Mark Lanks keeps the space fairly dark; he sets the windows aglow only when a virtuous character dies, to signify a blazing spirit unleashed. Kathleen Geldard's costumes -- 138 of them for 28 actors -- have the sumptuous look called for in a period spectacle. And though the 14-piece orchestra does sound a mite thin on occasion, conductor Jon Kalbfleisch makes sure that the instruments work with, and not against, the actor-singers.
If the goal in this insta-revival was to see whether "Les Miz" could be confined to smaller quarters, then Signature has more than proved the point. As it turns out, you don't need massive real estate to keep this musical real.
Les Miserables, music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer; original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc-Natel. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical staging, Karma Camp; orchestrations, John Cameron; sound, Matt Rowe; music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch. With Stephanie Waters, Aaron Reeder, Kurt Boehm, Chris Sizemore, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Stephen Gregory Smith, Amy McWilliams, Matt Conner, Michael Grew, Eleasha Gamble. About 2 hours 50 minutes. Through Jan. 25 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-573-7328 or visit http://www.signature-theatre.org.