Les Misérables at the Historic Academy of Music – A Review
Les Misérables - It’s Not Just Hype – It Really Is That Good
Les Misérables arrived in Philadelphia to start the new year, opening on January 4, 2011, and closing on January 15, at the historic Academy of Music. It was the first stop in 2011 for Cameron Mackintosh Presents Les Misérables - The 25th Anniversary Tour.
We attended the January 5, 2011 performance, and we can summarize our assessment of the show in a succinct, single sentence:
Les Misérables - it’s not just hype. It really is that good.
As 2011 begins, Les Misérables, is probably the most popular musical production, on the face of the earth. Due to its frequent and very long runs in London’s West End, Broadway, and a host of other cities and venues, more people have probably seen it, than any other show, in the history of musical theater.
In the 21st century - if it could be imagined - the already-remarkable popularity of Les Misérables.has soared even further into the stratosphere, due to the viral video of Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed a Dream” to astonish Simon Cowell on the BBC’s Britain’s Got Talent. Les Misérables notes on its official web site that “I Dreamed a Dream” is “the most popular song in the world”, and given the ubiquity and ease of the Internet in listening to music, that’s accurate.
Les Misérables is currently on the U.S. leg, of its international tour. And when we learned it was coming to Philadelphia, we thought that it was a unique opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. Given its popularity and longevity, we were very curious to see if the show was as good as advertised.
Well, it is.
In fact, it’s even better.
And here’s our review – we’d strongly encourage you to attend a performance - if you can obtain tickets…
Les Misérables - If You Go – Key Information - Dates, Performances, and Times
Les Misérables is playing at the Academy of Music, at Broad and Locust Streets, on the Avenue of the Arts. Performances take place on the following dates and times: Tuesday, January 4, 7:30 PM
Wednesday, January 5, 7:30 PM
Thursday, January 6, 7:30 PM
Friday, January 7, 8:00 PM
Saturday, January 8, 2:00 PM
Sunday, January 9, 1:00 PM
Sunday, January 9, 6:30 PM
Tuesday, January 11, 7:30 PM
Wednesday, January 12, 7:30 PM
Thursday, January 13, 2:00 PM
Thursday, January 13, 7:30 PM
Friday, January 14, 8:00 PM
Saturday, January 15, 2:00 PM
Saturday, January 15, 8:00 PM
Tickets can be obtained by calling 215.731.3333, which is for Broadway at the Academy. (Note that this is a different number, from the 215.893.1999 number for the Kimmel Center Box Office.) The Academy of Music Box Office is also open, for two hours prior to the start of a performance there, and for one half-hour after it starts.
In price, tickets range from $20 to $120, depending on the location.
We parked at the Doubletree Hotel, which is across the street and down the block from the Academy of Music, which was very convenient.
We had been asked, when we first decided to attend, to summarize Les Misérables in a paragraph or two. This is not easy, compared to other musicals. The plot is very long and intricate, full of twists and turns, and it takes place over a 17 year span. But here’s our best try at it.
Les Misérables is an operetta, based on the 1200-page novel by the great French author Victor Hugo, first published in 1862. It is set in France, during the first half of the 19th century. It was part of the Romantic movement in literature and the arts, during that century.
Among the many themes of Les Misérables are love, romance, redemption, idealism, loyalty, revenge, deprivation, hope, faith, altruism, justice, politics, and sacrifice. All of those often-contradictory threads are, in fact, in the same show.
Its subject matter is undoubtedly heavy (there is a laugh here and there, but it’s very much a drama, not a comedy). The title accurately communicates the subject matter. But its message is ultimately very positive for the audience in the theater, or the listener to the CD. You do in fact, feel good after seeing it, or listening to it.
Les Misérables – A Magnificent Spectacle
Having had the distinct good fortune and privilege, of attending dozens of theatrical performances, both professional and amateur, in a variety of cities, settings and locations-
we have never previously seen a show, which had such dynamic, awe-inspiring scenery, effects, and props, as those presented by Les Misérables, on this tour.
All theater is based on the suspension of disbelief. In this case, we had to temporarily forget that it was not an unseasonably (and pleasantly) warm January evening in Philadelphia. Instead, we were embarking upon a three-hour journey to 19th-century France, in three different towns, from 1815 to 1823 to 1832.
And we are happy to state conclusively, Les Misérables, perhaps more than any other production we’ve personally witnessed, achieves this suspension of disbelief.
In furtherance of this goal, we believe that the Academy of Music – erected in the 1850s, prior to the Civil War – was – far and away - the best Philadelphia venue for Les Misérables. We entered and took our seats, as soon as the house opened at 7:00 PM, for the 7:30 PM performance.
Due to its antiquity, with the bright gold statues everywhere, the seal of the city of Philadelphia emblazoned above both sides of the stage, permitted you to imagine that for one magical evening, you’ve been transported back to the 19th century.
While we still would have enjoyed the performance at one of the other Center City theaters, it had a particular panache at the Academy of Music.
The Stagecraft Not Only Transports You To 19th-Century France, It Permits You To Enter the World of the Characters
When you sit down, you are greeted by a dark, charcoal gray screen reading in script, Les Misérables, which sets the mood. In turn, you are taken to Jean Valjean’s galley, the candlelit home of the Bishop of Digne, a factory, an inn, a hospital, and so forth.
The backgrounds were so good, and the sets so elaborate, that you felt as if you were seeing the events actually taking place, in person -not like members of an audience at a stage show. The famous scene in the sewers, in the second act – the theatrical effects make you feel that you are not only in the sewers, but watching the characters move through them. There is another scene which takes place at the Seine River in Paris, in which the stagecraft is truly breathtaking (we’re deliberately not saying more, lest we give it away.)
When the students revolutionaries begin to march, the background shifts with them- and this yields the illusion that they are actually marching down the streets of Paris.
The most famous scenes, of course, are those that take place at the barricades. The staging is such that the audience sees the same angle as the students guarding them, and when the battle scenes begin, you feel as if you are in the midst of them. (There are signs when you enter, noting that there will be smoke, fog, and strobe effects, and you certainly experience them, while you’re in there. You can even smell the sulfur in the lingering aftermath of the battles.)
Should You Familiarize Yourself With Les Misérables Before Seeing the Show?
Our answer to that would be “yes”. Of course, doing so, means that you won’t be shocked by some of the plot twists. However, we felt that due to the sprawling plot and complexity of Les Misérables, that it would be better to listen to the album and read the synopsis, prior to seeing it.
We felt that we appreciated the performance more, knowing what would happen in advance, as we could concentrate more on how it was staged, than wondering what would happen next. So if you’re thinking about going, we’d recommend that you go to the official Les Misérables web site, which has a synopsis of both Act One and Act Two. (Even if you don’t have the CD, reading the synopsis will make it easier for you to follow the story.)
There is another reason why we believe that previous familiarity with Les Misérables would be helpful. Les Misérables is an operetta - meaning that there is no spoken dialogue whatsoever. The entire performance takes place with songs. Unlike a conventional musical, in which you can use your program as a sort of road map, glancing at the song titles during the scenes of nonmusical dialogue, Les Misérables doesn’t permit you to do that.
This was one of the very few theatrical performances, in which we didn’t consult our Playbills a single time. We didn’t want to miss anything! If you glanced down for a second, you might miss something really cool.
Les Misérables - The Cast
Even by the standards of world-class musical theater, the Les Misérables cast was stellar. We enjoyed all of their performances, from the leads through the ensemble cast, and have nary a discouraging word about any of them.
Accordingly, here is the cavalcade of praises for the leads and major supporting characters:
Jean Valjean – Lawrence Clayton
The protagonist of Les Misérables, Valjean is plagued by his past – he spent nearly two decades at hard labor, for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. (Although the icon of the show, which you see against the backdrop of the French tricolour, is the young waif Cosette, Valjean – her guardian - is actually the lead character).
Lawrence Clayton – in addition to his outstanding singing voice – portrays Valjean as a fundamentally decent man, a victim of injustice, and one who is ever conscious of the fact that he has a soul – and he never loses his humanity, no matter what the world throws at him.
Inspector Javert – Andrew Varela
Inspector Javert is the antagonist of Valjean, and their battle is the central theme of Les Misérables.
Andrew Varela’s performance stands out, even by the standards of this cast. His stentorian voice reverberates throughout the ancient columns of the pre-Civil War Academy of Music. His voice is incredible, both in terms of power and quality. And Varela is remarkably versatile as an actor, as well – we learned in the program that he had previously played Valjean! He had done so both on Broadway and a previous national tour of Les Misérables, in fact.
Javert’s two solos, both of which take place at night at the Seine River in Paris, are bathed with starlights and lampposts, and the tranquility and beauty of the scenery are expertly juxtaposed with the dramatic tension of Javert’s obsession with the recapture of Valjean. And Varela’s performances, against that backdrop, were remarkable.
Varela’s voice is the sort that when you hear it, especially for the first time, is astounding, a highly memorable one that truly engages the listener, He received the loudest applause when the cast took their bows at the conclusion of the performance, and deservedly so.
Fantine – Betsy Morgan
Fantine is the mother of Cosette, and she sings the now world-famous “I Dreamed A Dream”, about her daughter, the aforementioned song made viral by YouTube.
We recognize that the ubiquity of the Susan Boyle version, now offers an unprecedented challenge to any actress playing Fantine on stage, as the audience will now always think of the YouTube version and compare it to that. Fortunately, Morgan is more than up to the challenge, and delivers the song, conveying the right mixture of melancholy and pathos, making it memorable in her own right.
The Thénardiers – Michael Kostroff and Shawna M. Hamic
On the CD, it’s clear that the innkeepers, Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, are the villains of the story. But after seeing the show on stage, we recognize that they provide not only entertaining villains, but also some comic relief for a story based on themes of death, loss, grief, poverty, injustice, and love. Michael Kostroff and Shawna M. Hamic play the roles to the hilt, and clearly relish the opportunity to provide a few lighter moments for the audience.
Marius – Justin Scott Brown
Marius is a student, motivated by idealism to join the revolutionaries on the barricades, against the French monarchy. Justin Scott Brown turns in a fine performance, as a young man with passion for both his political beliefs and the young women in his life.
Cosette – Jenny Latimer
Cosette, the aforementioned young waif who is the iconic symbol of Les Misérables, is at the center of the plot, with Valjean as her guardian.
Little Cosette appears early in the first act, while the ward of the Thénardiers, along with Young Éponine, were played superbly by two actresses, Katherine Forrester and Anastasia Korbal. (Both roles are listed by the program as being played by both actresses.)
Éponine – Chasten Harmon
Éponine is the daughter of the Thénardiers, who grows up with Cosette. Chasten Harmon provides a formidable singing voice as she struggles with her connection to the Thénardiers and their villainous enterprises, throughout the play.
(One of Éponine’s solos, “On My Own”, was featured on the hit Fox show Glee, performed by the character of Rachel Berry, played by the actress Lea Michele. The main reason for the song’s appearance on Glee, was that Michele herself, in fact, had played Little Cosette on Broadway as a child. And as the years went by, she was eventually cast as the adult Éponine in a Los Angeles production of Les Misérables.)
Les Misérables - The Ensemble
The ensemble brought considerable talent to the performance, as well. Variously portraying prisoners, factory workers, revolutionaries, aristocrats, inn patrons, and wedding guests, the ensemble flows, seamlessly, in and out of the plot and scenery. Although, naturally, the audience is focused on the lead characters at any given point, there is always something being done by the ensemble in the background, greatly increasing the overall effect of the show.
Les Misérables – The Historical Context and Setting
It can be difficult for us Americans, to fully understand the historical context of Les Misérables. As history buffs, we thoroughly researched it, and it really enhanced our enjoyment of the performance. Here is a concise summary of the relevant history, for understanding the show:
It’s understandable, given the use of Cosette and the tricolour as the show’s icon, to believe that the setting of Les Misérables is against the backdrop of the French Revolution. That began in 1789, during the 18th century, shortly after our own Revolutionary War (1775-1781). (Ironically, the massive French aid to the American rebellion bankrupted the monarchy of King Louis XVI – in French, l’ancien régime - and was the catalyst for the subsequent revolution in France, several years later.)
However, all of the events portrayed in Les Misérables take place in 1823 and 1832, with the sole exception of the Prologue, which takes place in 1815. In summary, the historical events on stage take place, decades after the events which we commonly know as the French Revolution.
Although the dates are in the program, it’s easier when you go, to recognize that the Prologue takes place in 1815, and when you see Valjean appear as the owner of the factory and the mayor of the small town of Montreuil-Sur-Mer, that eight years have passed since Valjean’s release from prison and encounter with the Bishop of Digne – it’s now 1823.
In turn, after the scene in which you see the Thénardiers perform “Master of the House” and “The Bargain” – about halfway through the first act - nine more years pass. Accordingly, when you see the magnificent set, evoking the streets, the setting has now shifted from a small town in 1823, to the teeming capital of Paris in 1832.
And the rest of Les Misérables takes place in Paris in that year – the streets, the Seine river, the home of Valjean, the barricades, etc.
Les Misérables - Here’s the Detailed History, If You Want All The Details
1815 – Prologue – The Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon’s Fall, and the End of Revolutionary France
1815 was the year of the Battle of Waterloo, and the permanent end to the regime of Napoleon Bonaparte, when the rest of Europe decisively defeated him, for the second time. (The European allies had already defeated Napoleon once, exiling him to Elba in the Mediterranean. But Napoleon escaped, returned to France, raised another army, which was the one defeated at Waterloo; he was then exiled to St. Helena in the South Atlantic, from which he never returned; this is known as the Hundred Days.) That year – 1815 - is generally viewed as the end of the Revolutionary period in France.
Accordingly, the events in Les Misérables take place in 1823 – eight years after Napoleon’s fall – and 1832 – 17 years later. Nonetheless, France remained politically unstable even after Napoleon’s fall, throughout the 19th century. This instability forms the basis for the fictional characters in Les Misérables. Although the novel is a work of fiction, the historical milieu is based on genuine events.
1823 – 1832 – The Setting of Les Misérables
1815 – 1824 – The Restoration of King Louis XVIII and His Reign
After Waterloo, the heir to the Bourbon dynasty – King Louis XVIII, the brother of the guillotined King Louis XVI – was restored to the throne in 1815. He remained on the throne, for a relatively stable period, until his death in 1824.
1825 – King Charles X Crowned As Louis XVIII’s Successor
In May 1825, he was succeeded by King Charles X, who presided over a reactionary regime, which attempted to undo the legacy of the French Revolution and restore the full powers of the monarchy.
1830 – King Charles X Overthrown In the July Revolution
In July 1830, popular unhappiness with Charles X and his policies led to his overthrow, known as the Three Glorious Days, and the July Revolution. He was replaced on the throne by Louis-Philippe, who agreed to reign as a constitutional monarch, with far less power than his predecessor. He was known as the “Citizen King”, because he wore the long trousers of the bourgeoisie, and not the knee breeches of the aristocracy.
Louis-Philippe was endorsed by the Marquis de Lafayette, who symbolically wrapped him, publicly, in the tricolour, to indicate his commitment to preservation of the French Revolution. (Lafayette, as a teenager, was the French aristocratic volunteer who played such a pivotal role during our own Revolutionary War, serving as a trusted general under George Washington. He was, at this point, an elder statesman in France.)
June 1832 – The Student Uprising Against the Regime of Louis-Philippe
The barricade scenes in Les Misérables, however, do not take place against the backdrop of the July Revolution in 1830, either. They actually take place two years later, in 1832. The regime of Louis-Philippe came under attack from both the left - which wanted the monarchy abolished completely – and the right – which felt that the constitutional monarchy was a travesty and wanted the policies of Charles X resumed. The students you see oppose the regime from the left.
The catalyst, for the students building the barricades in Les Misérables, was the death of General Lamarque, who was popular among the citizens of Paris. Funerals were attended by thousands of people and provided opportunities for political movements – which the students seize. There also had been a cholera epidemic in Paris, earlier in 1832, which added to the misery of the population.
It took Victor Hugo 17 years to complete the novel, which he started in 1845. Despite its 1200 pages and heavy subject matter, it was a commercial sensation for the publishing industry, becoming a huge best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was published in 1862, while the Civil War was raging in America. The novel’s English translation was particularly popular on this side of the Atlantic, perhaps because the novel’s themes mirrored the enormous issues being disputed on the nation’s battlefields.
And we won’t say any more, lest we give away the plot points of Les Misérables.
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