Thursday, October 24, 2013

Beef & Boards stages popular large-scale musical in its cozy home

Enjolras (Nick Fitzer) rallies the rebels at the barricade.
"Les Miserables," the hit musical that had everybody brushing up on their 19th-century French history, has entered the 2013 schedule of Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre with a splash.

A lot of sad events pop up in the course of the Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil musical, but it has scored big worldwide with mainstream audiences,
thanks to its impactful songs and the feeling the music communicates that the intersection of public and private worlds can be thrilling, if not often fortunate.

Beef & Boards' production, seen Oct. 23, is smoothly knit together and buoyed by powerful performances in the roles of Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, Eponine, and Fantine, among others.

State-of-the-art body miking means the show is often quite loud. Full-voice singing isn't very flatteringly represented when projected at that level. Nonetheless, the expressive range and energy injected into both ensemble and solo numbers put this "Les Miz" across in a way comparable to more lavish, expansive stagings. The first-act finale,"One Day More," will pin your ears back even as it moves you.
 
Inspector Javert (Joe Tokarz) confronts Valjean (Gregg Goodbrod).
Gregg Goodbrod is riveting in the vital, transformative role of Valjean, the paroled thief unable to escape his criminal past, despite his business success and conversion to devout goodness. Convincing in all age ranges required by the sprawling story, Goodbrod was especially vivid Wednesday night in the first scene, as Valjean tries desperately to escape the stigma of poverty and his harsh sentence for petty theft. He dominated the stage effortlessly every time he was on, matching Javert (Joe To
karz) in ferocity and keen sense of mission. When it came time for his much-anticipated second-act solo, "Bring Him Home," he had plenty of tenderness in reserve to go with a delicately floating head voice.

Fervor is in good supply in the cast. Besides Tokarz's Javert, there was the steely resolve displayed by Nick Fitzer as the bourgeois radical Enjolras.  He didn't save this quality only for the anthemic "Do You Hear the People Sing?" but distributed it generously throughout his performance. On the female side, strong portrayals were etched by the signature songs: Young Cosette's "Castle on a Cloud" (Anja Reese), Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" (Sarah Hund), and Eponine's "On My Own" (Stephanie Torns).

Also contributing much to the performance's vivacity were Isaac Herzog as the feisty scamp Gavroche, Dominic Sheahan Stahl as the conflicted lover-revolutionary Marius,  Jerry Hacker as the compassionate Bishop of Digne (if one overlooks his ridiculous fake beard) and Douglas E. Stark and Annie Edgerton as the roguish Thenardiers, foremost in Eddie Curry's deft staging of the catchy "Master of the House." Stark's singing seemed a tad poky at times, but he matched Edgerton in comic rascality.

The six-piece band sounded spunky and wistful, as the occasion demanded. The sound, lighting and scenic design worked wonders with B&B's compact stage, even making a credible show of the climactic barricades fight in the second act. Costuming had sufficient touches of authenticity, though Gavroche looked like a newsboy from the 1920s.

The production impressed me, despite my dislike of "Les Miserables." Many stage shows, including musicals, have been adapted from novels, but they have to be turned into drama in order to work. Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" is not a good vehicle for drama; it remains a baggy episodic narrative,  and the French author's tendentious view of the events he narrates turns stage impersonations of his characters into emotional placards. The plot is not engaging as drama: Javert's lifelong obsession with capturing a parole-jumper doesn't make sense; Valjean is a plaster saint; the  female characters are maudlin and one-dimensional.

Furthermore, in common with several recent large-scale musicals, "Les Miz" has one spectacular scenic spectacle, like the helicopter in "Miss Saigon" or the chandelier in "Phantom of the Opera." It's the fight at the barricades, yet we know almost nothing about the struggle behind it, except it's rich versus poor. An audience knows only which side of that it's supposed to sympathize with (despite the ticket prices, especially in the large-venue productions). There's nothing about the June Rebellion of 1830, and why the death of Lamarque galvanized armed popular resistance to the pathetic French monarchy.

The characters and the setting, rather than being believably drawn, are propped up by heart-tugging songs. Part of the problem is that spoken dialogue conveys important information in most musicals, and "Les Miz" is famously sung throughout. In an old-fashioned show like "Oklahoma!" (which Beef & Boards will present in 2014, by the way), we learn far more about the tensions between cowboys and farmers in the Oklahoma Territory, through song and dialogue, than we do about the animating historical conflict of "Les Miz."

I don't mean to dismiss the show entirely, but it fails to engage me. It rests on inherently spindly legs, and it's to B&B's credit that its version manages to bulk up those thigh and calf muscles enough to create a sturdy evening of entertainment.