20 September 2008
Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities
Arvada, Colorado, USA
"So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom,
a social condemnation which, in the midst of civilization,
artificially creates a hell on earth,
and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine;
so long as the three problems of the century -
the degradation of man by the exploitation of his labor,
the ruin of woman by starvation,
and the atrophy of childhood by physical and spiritual night -
are not solved;
so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible;
in other words, and from a still broader point of view,
so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth,
there should be a need for books such as this."
- Victor Hugo, preface to Les Miserables, 1862
Dang, Vic! What a way to start a book. But it's fitting and correct. And, from a certain point of view, it's also a sentiment suitable for prefacing this entire Web site.
While I was waiting for the Arvada Center's performance of Les Miserables to begin, it occurred to me that, since I first saw Les Miz on Broadway, I've spent more time living, working, and traveling abroad than I have living in what was essentially my hometown, Arvada, Colo. Not that I spent much time at the Arvada Center growing up, anyway. The one distinct memory I have is of seeing North by Northwest there with my parents. It wasn't the "big screen" experience I was hoping for. It was presented on one of those portable, roll-up screens, the kind schools use to show Nanook of the North during social studies classes.
Moments before showtime, the Center's Executive Director, Gene Sobczak, took to the stage and provided a little background information about the show and the Center, acknowledging the Post's extremely positive four-star review and brushing aside the negative reaction in the News. Sobczak recalled a conversation with Artistic Producer Rod Lansberry in which Lansberry commented that what the Center does best are musicals. With that, the Center (once again) pursued permission to perform Les Miz and finally it became one of only 15 regional theatres nationwide hand-picked by Cameron Mackintosh to stage the show.
Sobczak seemingly meekly announced that Les Miz became the biggest success in the Center's entire history before a single performance. But then he made an unusual leap of hubris by saying that success was based on the Center's decades of quality-minded productions. He totally ignored the fact that Les Miz is the "World's Most Popular Musical." I can say with 100% certainty, if they were staging The Phantom of the Opera, I wouldn't have been there regardless of their claim to superb artistry.
In making his comments, Sobczak effectively set the audience up for high expectations. But, given the size of the theatre (the capacity is somewhere south of 500), those expectations had to be tempered with pure reality. There's no carousel and they're not working with a Broadway-sized budget.
But, if there's one thing the classic, all-star 10th anniversary concert of Les Miz proved, it's that the staging is a secondary consideration to the music. Will this Arvada Center production, an admittedly scaled-back version in a much smaller regional theatre, be able to take advantage of the music's strength?
When I first saw Les Miz at the Broadway on Broadway, I was sold from the very first emphatic, dramatic drum beat. When I caught up with the show's Broadway return last year, I was seriously disappointed that they had muddled with that opening and intentionally, willfully softened that opening beat. They also made some severely poor casting decisions in the name of some sort of artistic ambitions to shake things up a bit. Most of the cast didn't have the vocal requirements the roles demanded.
Well, the Arvada Center's production got off to a weak start. That emphatic drum beat wasn't there. Thankfully, though, that initial jolt of disappointment and its ensuing sinking feeling subsided quickly. The cast took the stage and their voices filled the theatre with the powerful words and vocals that brought back many great memories.
Let's go over that again: This cast was far, far superior to the one that worked the show on Broadway last year.
Randal Keith as Jean Valjean
Photo: Arvada Center
I can also single out Randal Keith as one of the best Jean Valjeans I've ever seen. What a magnificent voice! Yeah, he did falter toward the end of Bring Him Home, but that was the only glitch. Keith managed to own the role.
Little Cosette, Anna Sienko, was superb. Go right on down the line: Stephen Day as Javert, Valerie Hill as Fantine, Daniel Fosha as Marius... All top notch. And I'll add surprisingly top notch. The weak links, such as they are, would have to be Wayne Kennedy and Beth Flynn as the Thenardiers. They're weak merely by degrees. The problems stems from the fact that their songs, including their showstopper, Master of the House, seemed breathtakingly rushed. As in literally breathtaking; Kennedy in particular seemed to be working hard at keeping up.
Musically, there was perhaps a bit too much use of the electric harpsichord and, as with those Thenardiers, a lot of it seemed overly brisk.
Those tics aside, maybe it's true. Maybe the Arvada Center really does excel at staging musicals. It'll certainly be worth going back again to verify.
The staging was pretty darn clever. The barricade, featured on stage throughout the entire production, smartly doubled as a prop holder; chairs, tables and such were moved off and on the barricade as needed. The sight lines were fantastic and, given the intimate setting, there were times of pure audience-cast eye contact.
But - and it's a big but - a couple of Javert's key moments suffered from the stage's limitations. For one, during Stars, the beautifully-done star-studded black background was marred by an obnoxious, distracting blue screen that worked marvelously in creating silhouettes during Who Am I?. Oddly enough, the staging became more elaborate during the scene of Javert's suicide, this time successfully covering up that ugly backdrop in favor of a full panoply of stars. But then the dreaded regional theatre cheese moment happened: Javert's suicide involved a slow descent from the "bridge" to the stage via wires. It was awkward and an unnecessarily extravagant attempt at staging his jump. He shoulda just jumped down behind the barricade centerpiece.
Ultimately, though, the show rose above some awkward bits of staging and proved, as with that concert, that the treasure is in the music.
As previously mentioned, Who Am I? soared with drama and emotion, effectively melding spartan staging and music as Keith belted out the song while, in the background, the falsely-accused was brought before judges in a slow-motion dramatization of the trial. A similarly deft mix was displayed during Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, with the production finding a clever way to move the fallen students off the barricade. At the same time, the song carried the same punch it's always had. Drink With Me also hit all the right notes with a fairly minimal staging highlighting the power of the music.
But what was most striking, once again, was the power of the voices. So strong, so earnest. And that was on display at its best during One Day More! when the ensemble took the stage and song with a fantastic amount of conviction.
It was great to see my all-time favorite show so well done, so close to home.