DISCLAIMER TO ALL READERS: this is kind of a show review, which I typically don’t ever attempt because I’m not a reviewer of things besides food, and even that is probably debatable for most foodies. But I’ve got a lot of friends who were interested in what I’d think about the show I saw tonight, and rather than regale them with the longest Facebook status update in the history of all time, I decided to bring it on over here. If you’re not interested in reading non-low point stories from yours truly or musical theatre, go ahead and skip this one. I seriously won’t mind.
FOLLOW UP DISCLAIMER: I’m friends with a few cast members and have performed with several. I am going to do all I can to keep my opinions as objective as possible under the circumstances, but when you’ve worked closely with someone and know his/her strengths, weaknesses, and tics, it’s hard to not hone in on them.
FINAL DISCLAIMER: I don’t like to hurt feelings or step on toes, but I’ve got opinions about stuff, and I’m pretty willing to share them. I’m not really qualified to be a good reviewer of theatre since I’ve only done six shows in my life (on my seventh), many of them ensemble, but I did take professional voice lessons for several years, and I know when things suck. But if you’re interested in any qualifications I may have, they include a ton of singing, choirs, performances, vocal competitions, a few shows, and certified makeup artistry (which will come into play later).
Tonight I saw “Les Miserables” at the Scera Shell in Orem, which is their outside stage. To start off, I really don’t care for any performances in the Scera Shell for several reasons: I don’t like watching a show partially in the daylight (actually I hate it), I don’t like bugs, I don’t like heat, and I don’t like the feeling of a broken coccyx from sitting in a hard, plastic chair. I also find the stage too enormous for truly great blocking/staging to take place, regardless of how great the set, direction, and actors may be. Seriously, it’s the size of a city block, and I’ve never felt like any show I’ve seen there benefited from that. Les Mis wasn’t really any different for me — the set was beautiful, the direction good, and the actors generally phenomenal — but by utilizing the entire stage, certain scenes were pretty cut off from the majority of the audience or felt extremely cramped. I also found some of the blocking choices to be poor, and I wanted to yell at several actors (several times) to cheat out! Due to my being smack in the center of the audience, I could see pretty much everything, but I felt for the audience members to my left and right who were staring at the backs of heads for most of the night (every scene between Cosette and Marius was probably boring to 2/3 of those in attendance).
The lighting was fine — I don’t typically notice lighting unless it’s really, really good and enhances the performance as though it’s a character as well, but there weren’t a lot of technical aspects of the lighting that bothered me. A few times they simulated lightning, which would have been fine in an indoor theatre, but with the lighting exposed to the audience, I found it far more distracting. There were, unfortunately, quite a few small sound issues throughout the show, and several entrances were missed, especially from ensemble members, and I was disappointed they didn’t get their full opportunity to shine. They also used sound effects that ended up louder than the music at certain points, and that was distracting and had a “Three Stooges” effect on what should have been serious scenes (Thenardier breaking someone’s neck, Marius punching Thenardier, a bubbling stream before Javert’s suicide were amongst the greatest of offenders).
Costuming was fantastic — having performed at the Scera in the past, I know the costumers and their capabilities, and I was pleased to see them have the opportunity to really shine. The only issues I had throughout the entire show were: a red revolution jacket Eponine wore during battle and a white top Valjean wore, which were all fantastically clean and pressed to the point of drawing away from their performances. As a makeup artist, I was terribly disappointed in the entire show’s makeup. Javert and Valjean were aged slightly, but by the time they died, it felt like they were more or less on the young end of middle aged. Both actors are young to begin with, and I needed them to look older and harder than they did — after all, Valjean was a hardened “criminal,” who served a 19-year prison sentence. He’s going to look like he was rode hard and put away wet, and this Valjean was almost dashing. The ensemble got the worst of it, with bad, messy contouring (one female ensemble member looked like she had a beard — FOR SHAME — and another looked like a cross between someone who just finished the Tough Mudder and Snooki), too dark brows, and inconsistent dirtiness. The prostitutes during “Lovely Ladies” had such thick, red makeup on their cheeks that I had difficulty watching their faces. I certainly understand the need for extreme makeup in that case (if you’ve seen the Broadway version, you know it exists), but the color was so off-putting that it ruined their faces. I teach stage makeup classes, and I believe very firmly that makeup should only enhance a performance and never take away from it (even in instances like Hedwig — it’s really, really extreme, but it’s also consistent with the storyline and the show as a whole). I saw several cast members with very straight lined brows, most too dark. The leads fared better, although poor Eponine’s face was so filthy that from where I was sitting, it appeared that she didn’t have a nose, and Gavroche’s dirtiness seemed almost pre-planned, rather than looking like actual mess. In fact, the only characters whose makeup I didn’t find appalling were Cosette, Marius, Fantine, and Enroljas (basic corrective) and the Thenardiers because in their case, more is more.
The stand-outs for me were: Fantine, Eponine, both Thenardiers, Valjean, and the ensemble (yeah, you heard me). Under no circumstances did I find any of the actors bad, but there were a few leads that left much to be desired for me for several reasons — we’ll get to that.
Fantine, played by Kelsey Thacker, was a sympathetic character whose plight made you heartsick. Her vocals were extremely strong, and she performed with a great amount of passion, so you felt like an engaged audience member during every one of her scenes. When she passed away, I shed a couple tears because the scene was so moving. I particularly loved her quiet moments — her belt is extremely strong, but when she’d back off, you’d feel the hurt, the anguish, the worry and fear, and it made for a very personal experience.
I’ll admit it right now: I auditioned for Eponine because it’s my dream role. Well, sort of (I couldn’t come to auditions, my conflicts sheet essentially said “due to the show I’m currently in, I’ll be able to make it to tech week and then perform”, and the director ended up with an email with my YouTube channel link and a pdf of my resume, so … I guess if you want to get technical, I auditioned, but if you want to really face the music, I totally did not). I find myself filled with a certain amount of trepidation when it comes to nearly every Les Mis character because the 10th year anniversary concert ruined us all FOREVER. This young woman, however, was such a pleasure to watch, that I was almost glad I wasn’t cast so I could enjoy her performance. Portrayed by Kira Knorr, Eponine was kind of the quintessential young woman in love with a young man in love with another young woman. She held her own vocally, with a strong belt and great control for excellent dynamics. Her lower range wasn’t quite what it needed to be, but when I discovered she is only seventeen, I applauded her for being able to accomplish what she did with a voice that won’t fully develop for another ten years. Her characterization was a sweet girl trying to be strong despite having a truly tragic life, turned away by the people she needed to love her, and I found myself wanting to rally the troops and get up on stage to give those who shunned or abused her a piece of my mind. I’ve seen Eponine portrayed as a weaker female role, and I was very pleased to see that Knorr did the exact opposite, giving her strength but showing her vulnerabilities.
The Thenardiers were exactly what you would hope for in a performance of the show. They were brash, filthy, not entirely all there, lewd, but both Allison Books and Benjamin James Oldroyd had such incredible control over their characters that they never went too far. They knew exactly when to step back and let others on the stage have the limelight and stepped right back into taking over at the appropriate times. Their vocals were very strong — I think Books was the strongest vocalist of all the leads, never hitting a sour note, and Oldroyd had the perfect amount of dirty belt and growl that it kept the vocals, well, grungy. While I absolutely enjoyed him as Thenardier, I found myself wishing he’d been cast as Javert the entire time, however (more on that later). Due to it being performed in Utah, there were several language/content edits during the entire show (the most distracting being “bum” instead of “butt”), however they left most of the language in “Master of the House,” which (and this is going to sound weird) made me remarkably pleased. The ensemble did tend to cheer or shout during each swear word, in what I assume was a feeble attempt to censor it for the primarily Mormon audience, but I found it less irritating and cheesy than I anticipated beforehand. All uses of Deity were removed, replaced instead with “Geez,” and when I initially heard that was the plan, I was mortified, but the actors played it off extremely well, and there were times when I didn’t really even notice the change.
If you’ve seen Colm Wilkinson perform Valjean, then you’re ruined for life. It’s just simply how it is — much like Michael Crawford was the Phantom, Wilkinson was (and frankly still is) 24601 for the vast majority of musical theatre junkies (actors and audience members alike). The role is vocally taxing — he growls in one line and jumps to falsetto in another. Many of his lines need to be delivered quickly and with precision, or else they become a jumbled mess, and on top of it, his humanity has to shine through. I felt as though Matt Krantz accomplished all these things almost flawlessly, with a strong performance both vocally and emotionally. But there is a but. Krantz is a 22-year old junior at BYU, and though they attempted to age him throughout the show, his falsetto was a young one, and he played the character overall much younger than originated (think Gerard Butler as the weird 30something Phantom that never should have been). This unfortunately distracted me throughout the entire show — I don’t have anything negative to say about his performance aside from his being so young, which he can’t much control, but it was fairly glaring for me. However, I feel very confident that if Krantz continues on the path he’s on, in about twenty years, he will play a remarkable Valjean that audiences will take note of.
This was undoubtedly one of the strongest ensembles I’ve ever seen in a community theatre production, and in many instances, they almost upstaged the leads. The vocals were extremely strong, with tight harmonies and incredible dynamics, and I tip my hat to director/music director, Jeremy Showgren, for producing such an incredible cast. The featured men’s ensemble during numbers such as “Do You Hear the People Sing” and “Drink With Me” could have probably all been cast as any of the lead roles, and they added a depth to the musical numbers that’s difficult to find in many community theatre productions. “One Day More” sent chills down my spine, and it took nearly all I had within me to not stand up and cheer during the song because I was so moved by their heart and passion. [Right here I have to give special props to to Stephen Tullis, who was undoubtedly the strongest ensemble member, for planting himself immediately during "Do You Hear the People Sing" -- my eyes went directly to him, and I wanted to encourage the rest of the ensemble to follow his lead. I feel pretty strongly about planting since I am generally not very good at it -- I notice when someone does it absolutely right.]
Unfortunately, I did not find strength in all the characters, and I wanted more from both Javert (Jeffrey Smith) and Marius (Christian Jones). Javert unfortunately lacked any passion at all, and I didn’t find him walking with a purpose across the stage, and during the Confrontation, he was quite possibly the least confrontational individual I’ve ever come across. What made me love Oldroyd as Thenardier was completely lacking in Smith’s performance, and I found “Stars” uninspiring, which is a disappointment for me, as it’s one of my favorite songs of the show. That being said, his vocals were very good — he could sing all the notes and hold them out till kingdom come, but it was a very passive performance of Javert, and even his suicide felt anti-climactic. I thought Jones’s portrayal wasn’t particularly bad but neither particularly good, and nothing stood out for me as an audience member. The staging of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was some of the best in the entire show, however, leaving Marius caught up in a dream, surrounded by all of his fallen friends, and when Thacker (as Enroljas) stood, planted firmly, staring at Marius, it was extremely powerful. That song has often been a throwaway for me, and it left a rather lasting impression for me tonight.
Cosette, played by Morgan Flandro, was fairly forgettable, but I personally find the character as a whole to be forgettable — she’s there so Marius has someone to love and for Valjean to redeem himself with, but there’s nearly zero character development throughout the entire show, and her songs are entirely duets/group numbers. A graduate of AMDA, I wanted her to be Broadway good, and while she was excellent, I enjoyed her character the least (which again is not entirely her fault — let’s just blame Schonberg and Boublil). She had an excellent range, however, and hit all the high notes with ease.
The children characters (Gavroche, Young Eponine, and Young Cosette) were about what you’d expect from child actors in community theatre. Young Cosette sang “Castle on a Cloud” very well, but her inability to keep a straight face was distracting.
I noticed both Kelsey Thacker and Jones were used as ensemble members at certain points of the show, and the tactic to make them less obvious was to cover their faces halfway with their hair, which I found very “Mahana you ugly” (if you’re not Mormon, you probably won’t get that reference). I’d have rather had them look normal or not been in the ensemble at all (or disguised better than with emo hair). The ensemble was large enough, that it certainly wasn’t necessary for them to be in it, so I imagine it was simply a chance for them to be onstage a little longer, but having been an ensemble member in the past, sometimes you’re in shows that leave you backstage for 90% of a show, and you just have to go with it. Bring a book, it’ll make the time pass by faster.
This is an incredible show that proves the Scera is on the upward path to better quality productions. Despite Utah going a little gaga over Les Mis, this performance was a standout for me, and I’m thoroughly pleased I ended up attending.