Struck to the Bone

3 Apr

Had you been there tonight
You might know how it feels
To be struck to the bone
In a moment of breathless delight!

So, if you’re one of the lucky few following me on Twitter, you may be aware that last night, I had a ticket to see Les Miserables, the musical, at Houston’s Hobby Center. And it was fucking fantastic. Never have I been so utterly fascinated with a theatrical performance* (and I am privileged enough to go to the theatre relatively frequently). My back was sore by the end (approximately a 3 hr. show) from leaning forward in my seat almost the entire time. From the opening notes of “Look Down” through the finale, I was completely drawn into this retelling of the story I have loved for a year and a half (given that I am only twenty, this is a long time even if it doesn’t sound like it). This was the first time I had been to a show where I was as intimately familiar with the source material for the play/musical as I was last night. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I saw last summer, came close but usually, when I see a performance I don’t know the original as well as I know Les Mis, if I know it at all. That was interesting in the way it played out – Gavroche’s death scene had me wincing about 3 minutes before the rest of the audience was. I’ve also never been to the theatre alone – I usually go with my dad or a group, so I did some hardcore people-watching, and it was interesting seeing how the dynamics changed because I was by myself. There may be a post coming on gender norms and theatre attendance, because that was screaming out at me (M. Thenardier’s line in “Beggars at the Feast,” “this one’s a queer, but what can you do?” got one of the biggest laughs of the night from the audience).

I’ve had the soundtrack from the original London cast (OLC) for a while, so it’s always interesting to hear how things are reinterpreted as the musical develops. One of the things that I noticed most was the way the British accent factored in to my knowledge of the music – there were several times when the American pronunciation threw me off because I was expecting British pronunciation. And another thing – my roommate’s been telling me for ages that the OLC recording’s Fantine is kinda ‘meh,’ but until last night, I didn’t believe her. Andrea Rivette (who played Fantine last night) had me in tears because of the sheer power of her rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream,” which has never seemed so profound as it did yesterday. I hadn’t even noticed how Fantine’s struggles with the abandonment of Tholomyes mirrored those of Eponine’s struggle with her unrequited love for Marius (The line, “And still I dream he’ll come to me,/That we will live the years together…” is quite similar in concept to “On My Own.”). Any Foxtrotters know of a recording with a good casting of Fantine? Valjean, played by Rob Evan last night, was also quite good. His voice didn’t sound quite capable of hitting the notes at the end of  “Bring Him Home,” but it worked. The strain translated well as emotive rather than painful to listen to, which I was a little worried might happen. And I had no idea “Stars” was sung by Javert – for some reason, I had gotten the impression that Valjean was singing it – similar vocal ranges, maybe?

The staging was also very cool. The scenic designer’s note in the Playbill was fascinating. Apparently, the show traditionally has a revolving barricade, but Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS), the production company for this performance, wasn’t allowed to use it. So Matthew Kinley (the scenic designer) had some quite creative solutions. First, the barricade was stationary – there was one scene where seeing the other side of the barricade was necessary, the aforementioned scene of Gavroche’s death (which is fairly true to the book IIRC – for the most part, the barricade scene is written from the view of the students’ group). Also, Kinley worked with projecting some of Hugo’s own drawings (which are absolutely dumbfoundingly amazing – his use of media!) to set the scene to spectacular effect. I’m not sure how well the sewer scene translated for the people that didn’t know what was going on. It may not have been entirely clear that Valjean was going through the sewers of Paris to wind up on the banks of the Seine, which Javert picked up on by finding a trail of Valjean’s blood, but maybe it seemed like it might confuse people because I’m used to Hugo’s windy explanations of absolutely everything that could maybe sort-of be a little confusing to a small subset of the population perhaps. But Javert’s suicide translated well, I thought. I was wondering how they would show the “jumps into river and drowns” thing without, you know, actually having a river, but they did it quite nicely through the use of the projections of Hugo’s artwork I mentioned earlier.

Which I guess brings me to the acting. Very good all around, with a few performances that stuck out – Javert (played by Jeremy Hays) was phenomenal. A well-played Javert can change my entire perception of a rendition of Les Miserables (Geoffrey Rush’s Javert is the only reason I ever recommend this film), so even if I hadn’t already been in love with the play by Fantine’s death-scene, Hays’ performance of Javert would have caught my attention as improving the entire show exponentially. As I said above, Andrea Rivette’s Fantine was also quite good. Enjolras, played by Edward Watts, was pretty powerful as a sort of father figure to Marius, though his time on stage was fairly brief. The child playing Gavroche (Sam Linda) was fairly impressive as well – pretty serious acting chops for an eleven-year old. Eponine, played by Sarah Shahinian, didn’t quite speak to me the way I expected her to. I think it has to do with the fact that I have ridiculous high ideals for the character, because I identify so much with her in the book and in the OLC performance – “On My Own” was listed as a highlight in the Houston Chronicle’s review of the show, while in my head it was almost imperceptibly a disappointment. It was still a good performance – just not up to my impossibly high standards for Eponine.

And because I am so intimately familiar with the book Les Miserables, you will have to forgive me a small rant. I’m one of those people that hates when things are changed or taken out of the original for no apparent reason – I was upset for a week after I saw the first Harry Potter film and Harry had referred to Malfoy by first name, “Draco.” I didn’t mind so much that Azelma was removed – she doesn’t do much even in the book, but the rearranging of the action at M.-sur-M. so that Javert doesn’t suspect M. Madeleine’s true identity until long after his confrontation concerning Fantine’s arrest seemed pointless. Javert’s recognition after the Fauchelevant incident seemed comical – “You must be Valjean, but you can’t be because Valjean’s been arrested, and I would never have thought anything of it, but jeepers mister, you’re very strong” and Valjean’s subsequent reclaiming of the label “24,601” seemed almost too quick – in translating to stage, you lose so much of the anguish that Hugo embues in his characters – that “Tempest in a Skull” is reduced to almost farcical decision-making. M. Thenardier’s characterization seemed a bit off – in the book he’s described as fairly quiet and unexpectedly intelligent (and even more dangerous because of it), yet in the play he’s a drunken, boisterous thief but ultimately mostly harmless.

But overall, it was an amazing performance, and it cemented my appreciation for an audio/visual interpretation of the book.

*Marius Pontmercy had me in thrall (if you got that joke, we seriously need to geek out over British literature together).


4 Responses to “Struck to the Bone”

  1. eloriane April 3, 2009 at 11:02 pm #

    At some point I am going to talk Les Mis with you like whoa, but for now I just want to say that I am so jealous of you, because I want to see it again now that I’ve read the book.

    Seeing the play first made reading an odd experience, in some ways. I found myself overwriting the actors onto the characters, which worked heavily in Marius’ favor (the Marius I saw was SO CUTE, I wanted to just EAT HIM UP, he had this long, soft blonde hair tied back with a ribbon in a bow, like Draco’s dad but young and cute, and he had a little pearl on his forehead. Lovely!) but worked against some characters (it took me a long time to warm up to Fantine in the book, although I eventually did, because I just didn’t care for the actress who played her; she came across as… whiny. Which is amazing, because Fantine takes some serious crap with a stunning lack of complaint!)

    Also, check out the lyrics to Javert’s suicide and Valjean’s “What Have I Done” (the last verses of each). Write them out side by side… it’s a fantastically good reflection of the similarities and the huge differences between Javert and Valjean.

    Haha, and didn’t I say this was going to be a short comment? Oops. Anyway: AWESOME.

  2. eloriane April 3, 2009 at 11:04 pm #

    Oh, and the friend I saw the play with started crying when Gavroche first came out onto the barricade and sang his little song, because she knew what was coming. I looked at her like she was crazy, but in, like, two minutes I was crying along with her. Our Gavroche was good, completely adorable. When I saw how much of him there was in the book, I was angry he’d shown up in so little in the play, because I wanted more!

  3. niemaodpowiedzi April 4, 2009 at 7:27 am #

    Yeah, Gavroche’s part in the play has gotten smaller since the original, but I couldn’t find a good way to fit that rant into the already long post. The song he sings while gathering the ammunition (“Little People”) is on the OLC recording in full, ridiculously adorable style. But no, the play was too long and they cut Gavroche. And I’m fairly sure the woman sitting next to me thought I was crazy for a bit – I kept laughing at parts that weren’t too funny unless you know the book, and I was pretty visibly uncomfortable in parts that didn’t make sense to be unless you were both a feminist and familiar with the book (*cough* Valjean’s confession of convict status to Marius and subsequent wedding *cough*)

    And the few times I’ve seen a visual interpretation (play or film) of a work of literature before I read it (if it’s something I want to read, I read it before I see it), the actors completely dominate my imagination. The actors I saw originally in the role say every line. And like I said in-post, a good performance of the more complex characters will utterly thrill me and get inside my head, even when I have background with a previous performance or the book (like Draco’s dad, actually – even though I had the books mostly memorized by the time the second movie came out, I still see Jason Isaacs as Lucius every time I read them).

  4. Andrea Rivette July 23, 2009 at 10:00 pm #

    Thank you so much for your incredibly sweet comments.

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