As “Les Miserables” is one of my personal favorites when it comes to musical theatre, so I was particularly interested in attending the current production at Toby’s of Columbia. One of the more interesting aspects for me was going to be how they were going to handle the fact that the venue is in the round. When they are at the barricade for the second act of the show, what happens to half the audience that is on the wrong side of the barricade. This is where this production was probably most clever. Much of the set was made of movable metal scaffolding that was arranged and configured as a stand-in for the barricade, the sewers and the bridge where Javert’s suicide. While there were some recurrent instances from my seat where the movable scaffolding obscured your view of parts of the stage during the first act, it wasn’t so problematic to ruin the experience. Although I might recommend requesting seats that are not directly next to any of the four stage entrances to avoid any problems, especially the one opposite the main entrance for the audience. Anyway, back to the barricade. My seats happened to be located on the wrong side of the barricade, which I particularly enjoyed, because I’d never seen the fight at the barricade from that perspective. And seeing the students train their guns in your direction was quite the different experience (all gun firing was sound effects and the guns were pointed down the theatre entrance and not at any audience members). Then to watch through the metal scaffolding as if spying on the events with x-ray vision as Eponine and Marius sing “Little Hall of Rain”, the students sing “Drink with Me” and Valjean sings “Bring Him Home”. It brought a different feel to the experience than I had ever experienced before.
To be overly critical, I would note that there were several decisions made with respect to the production, some of which were more successful than others. One of the more successful ones was the decision to have the Thenardier’s performance be more of loving jabs than spiteful insults. In “Master of the House” it is often performed with Madame Thenardier having contempt for her husband and her plight when she sings about her husband’s intelligence and manhood. The decision to have this song, the relationship and those lines be performed as more loving mockery than angry was refreshing, because I’ve always viewed those characters as two peas in a pod. And to see it performed in that manner was delightful.
Where the decisions were not as strong came with the deaths of Fantine and Eponine. Thankfully, neither decision ultimately distracted from the performance to any great degree. In both songs it is the dying moments of a character and the decision of how to stage those scenes lessened the impact of those deaths. For instance, in Fantine’s Death she begins by sitting in a chair and gets up and carries a pillow around the stage as a stand in for Cosette. Only in the final moments of the song to find her way to the bed and die. For someone so close to death I found it somewhat off-putting that she was wondering around the stage cradling a pillow in her final moments. The real impact of that decision was felt when they made a similar decision with Eponine’s death. Where in her dying moments she is caressing Marius’ hair and didn’t appear to be in her final moments. Both moments together just felt miss placed.
On the positive side, the staging of the Valjean’s sewer scene and Javert’s suicide on the bridge were creative and highly successful. Specifically, I would note Javert’s death and the clear homage to both the original broadway portrayal of the scene and the more recent National Tour’s re-staging of that moment. The performances by the leading casts were all quite good, with Valjean and Javert being particular stand-outs. The weakness of the cast came from some of the supporting characters, but the fact that they were just the supporting characters in this extremely large cast was again a bit persnickety on my part.
But overall this was a really nice production of the show that lets you get so much closer to the production than you are likely to on a Broadway stage and allows you to get a unique perspective on the events based on the staging, which all together makes it a worthwhile trip back to the barricade.