AISLE SAY Philadelphia


Original French Text by Alain Boublil & Claude-Michel Schonberg
Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Additional Material by James Fenton
Directed by Mark Clements
Walnut Street Theatre, 9th & Walnut Streets, Philadelphia, PA
Playing now through August 3, 2008
Box Office: (215) 574-3550

Reviewed by Claudia Perry

To say that the Walnut Street Theatre's production of "Les Miserables" is a fresh, new vision is to make a vast understatement. For this is the first and only time that I ever liked this overblown, overly long, sung-through saga that claims to be the world's most popular musical. Not being a fan of the show, in fact, disliking the score, this production not only entertained me, but made me appreciate much of the music. When producer Cameron Mackintosh decreed that all new productions of this three hour musical had to be completely different interpretations, director Mark Clements obviously took it to heart.

Based on Victor Hugo's brilliant novel about Jean Valjean, a convict who is sentenced to 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread in 1815, the show spans three decades in 19th Century France. It tells the story of Valjean's escape, his redemption and his life long struggle to elude capture by the righteous Inspector Javert who is constantly at his heels.

Firstly, the casting is almost perfect. (This is no small feat as the cast size is huge by modern day standards.) Hugh Panaro is a sensitive, intelligent, sweet voiced Valjean who makes the long opening soliloquy believable and human. His rendition of "Bring Him Home" where he asks God to spare the life of Marius, the young man that loves his ward, Cossette, is heartbreaking. Paul Schoeffler is absolutely brilliant (and I don't use this word lightly) as Javert, the inflexible martinet who seeks the recapture of his escaped prisoner. Mr. Schoeffler's singing is nothing short of spectacular and his characterization -- crystal clear. The young lovers, Marius and Cossette played by Josh Young and Julie Craig are extremely exciting to watch. Ms. Craig has a glorious coloratura and Mr. Young sings like an angel. Both actors are alive and engaging. But in particular, Mr. Young's performance was impressive. Quite frankly, I have never seen a young man his age express such a depth of heartfelt emotion in a musical before. Christina DeCicco is a wonderful Eponine, with her clear, high belt and spunky characterization. Always in good voice,Jeffrey Coon is a fine Enjoiras, the leader of the Student Uprising. Though Scott Greer is very funny as Thenardier, the corrupt innkeeper, he isn't nearly as menacing as he should be. And Dawn Spence, as Mrs. Thenardier with her British accent and constant mugging, is in a different show altogether. Both the male and female members of the Company possess voices with true gravitas making the group numbers such as "One More Day" exhilarating. Todd Edward Ivins' set is simply stunning. Huge metal structures are at once a factory and then suddenly a bridge over the River Seine. Stone walls are first that of a prison and then those of a mansion for a resplendent wedding scene (a scene where enormous crystal chandeliers which are actually flat but appear to be three dimensional hang from the rafters). And the pi_ce de resistance, a movable barricade constructed of wooden beams and furniture which is melded together to form a lattice work for the dramatic draping of dead young men murdered in the Student Uprising of 1832. Mark Clements has taken these striking set pieces and used them to create tableaus and stage pictures of museum quality. The Lighting Director, Jeff Nellis must also be commended, for without his artful illumination, these images would not be as dramatic as they are. This is why great musical theatre is so hard to achieve, for it is surely the most collaborative of arts. If even one of the elements is missing, the effect desired may never be realized.

My one caveat with this production is that in some instances the "dirtying up" goes a bit too far. The picking of noses and the scratching of asses is comic and not bothersome. And the bawdy scene with the prostitutes feels gritty and realistic. But when Fantine sings a song about her private thoughts while being screwed up against a wall by one of her patrons, that goes a bit too far for me because it doesn't ring true. A prostitute would never reveal herself in front of a client. Hookers are usually great dissemblers. They wear wigs and have fake names. Their inner selves are only revealed in private. Within a play or musical this means that the character would open their heart in a monologue or song that only the audience would hear.

Small criticisms aside, if you are a fan of this show then you will appreciate this gloriously re-imagined production. And if you've never seen a production of "Les Mis" before, this is most probably the one to see.

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