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Theater review: Duluth Playhouse's ‘Les Misérables’ is gloriously operatic

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So the big questions is: Was it worth it? All the time, the money, the effort, the living hell of perpetual tech, everything that went into the Playhouse production of “Les Misérables” at the DECC this week.

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Mon Dieu, oui! “Les Misérables” is tres great.

Director Dorothy Danner, aided and abetted by the choreography of the Minnesota Ballet’s Robert Gardner, knows what to do with both the massive expanse of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center stage and her three dozen performers. The payoff was an opening night audience that leapt to its feet in thunderous applause before the final notes had even begun to echo away.

Conductor Dirk Meyer and the members of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra are a major part of the equation for the success because of not only the obvious quality of the musicians but their quantity, which was two to three times what we normally hear in a Playhouse musical. Of almost equal importance is Ken Pogin’s dramatic lighting design providing a somber grandeur with a dazzling palette of colors and shafts of light.

For me the litmus test for  “Les Misérables” has always been “At the End of the Day.” There is something about the rhythm and the mix of the soaring female voices against the strings and horns that I find absolutely gorgeous when it works. It was the moment in the movie version where I knew I was going to be disappointed, and the point in this production where I knew this show was really going to be good.

As Jean Valjean, Adam Sippola’s voice is richer and deeper in resonance than we have heard previously, which works quite well for a part that was made famous by an Irish tenor. The final note in “Who Am I? — The Trial” was a bit of a reach for Sippola, but he totally nailed the most important note of the evening: the big one at the end of “Bring Him Home.”

I fully expected “Stars” to be the other standout solo number in this production, and baritone Jeffrey Madison as Inspector Javert did not disappoint. The number gave me chills, an experience multiplied with the celebrated first act finale “One Day More” that is so absolutely epic it threatens to overshadow everything that happens after intermission, which explains why the high points of act two are quieter ones.

The other thrilling moment that fulfilled my idiosyncratic expectations comes in “Look Down” when the beggars are chanting “It’ll come,” and the students who lead the Paris Uprising of June 1832 — not to be confused with the French Revolution a generation earlier — arrive on stage. Lucas Pastrana as Marius and Pascal Pastrana as Enjorla both provided the requisite big voices to cap that dramatic moment.

There are definite tradeoffs based on where you are sitting. The sound is better farther back in the auditorium, but the emotional impact of the performances, such as Ali Littrell Finstrom singing Fantine’s heartbreaking and defiant anthem “I Dreamed a Dream,” and Sarah Killough’s ode to unrequited love “On My Own” as Eponine, are far greater the closer you sit to the stage, where the amplified voices tend to echo.

As much as I always enjoy the toe-tapping “Master of the House,” where Priscilla McRoberts made a feast of every one of Madame Thénardier’s lines, I was even more impressed by the visceral element Mike Pederson’s Monsieur Thénardier brought to “Dog Eat Dog.” Jim Olson’s brief turn as the Bishop of Digne, setting Jean Valjean on the path to salvation, also was quite effective. 

I have seen productions of this show with forgettable Cosettes who were little more than porcelain dolls. But Jenny Graupmann Campbell had me actually rooting for the first time for Marius to end up with Cosette instead of with Eponine, on the strength of her “In My Life” solo and their “A Heart Full of Love” duet.

Far and away my biggest concern walking through the doors was how the electronically amplified singers would sound in the cavernous confines of Symphony Hall. I have heard professional touring companies in there where I could not understand what was being sung even with songs where I already knew the words.

Happily there were only a couple of performers whom I had trouble comprehending and almost as few technical glitches with the microphones (Eponine’s mic died about the same time as General Lemarque, but was resuscitated offstage).

The sound mix between the orchestra and the singers was excellent, and the show actually sounds better the farther away you are from the stage (the hall’s sweet spot seems to be sitting under the balcony). If you are seated on the far left or far right sides of the hall you are going to get glimpses of what there is to see offstage and the preparations for the next scene. But despite such distractions, you will not have problems following the action from anywhere in the hall.

Danner wholeheartedly embraces the bigness of this show. The title and the towering image of Emile Bayard’s iconic Cosette are projected on the scrim against the red, white and blue of le Tricolore. Danner makes the stage as big as possible, getting the curtains out of the way and extending the action beyond the proscenium arch to include both sides of the apron.

Verticality comes into play as well in the scenic design by Curtis Phillips, with a pair of two-story structures flanking the stage and a trio of mobile multi-level platforms. Patrons seated in the balcony have an excellent bird’s-eye view of the proceedings, especially with several of the songs that are predominantly sung up on that second level.

The word that kept coming to mind while watching this show was “operatic.” Ultimately, “Les Misérables” is an opera rather than a musical. Most operas have music from start to finish and everything is sung rather than spoken, and “Les Mis” fits the bill. Most importantly, like any good opera, by the final curtain virtually all of the principal singers are dead.

The tenor? Dead. The baritone? Dead. The soprano does not even make it a third of the way through the first act alive, and the soprano who replaces her fails to survive half as long in act two.

But beyond that, this production absolutely looks like an opera being put on by the Met. Operas usually have way more performers than musicals. “Les Mis” presents close to three dozen performers on stage, a mix that includes *Equity professionals and talented newcomers, not to mention a couple of local standouts in their final Duluth show.

Plus you literally need all of the fingers on both hands to count the members of the ensemble who have had lead roles in Playhouse productions. Having all those bodies make a significant difference to both the chorale singing and the staging of action.

Danner and her cast also come up with a whole host of nice little moments throughout the evening: the homage to “Ben-Hur” in the opening number, Javert’s shadow as he is about to intrude on Fantine’s death bed, the way the marching in place actually progresses toward the audience in “One Day More,” and Javert’s inspection of the barricade after the battle and the joining of Gavroche and Enjorlas in death.

One scene was reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting, and I am pretty sure they lifted a gag from Harpo Marx that included a scene-stealing silver platter on opening night.

Several numbers struck me as being more up-tempo than they are usually performed, which worked well for “In My Life,” but not so much for “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” There were a few times where the noise of moving stage pieces into play distracted from the action, which were quickly forgotten when the barricade magically appeared. I think young Cosette’s lament would play out better against the immense stage than on the apron, and the “Do You Hear the People Sing” finale starts out a couple of notches louder than it should, but on balance those are relatively minor quibbles.

Final thought: In the preface to his novel, Victor Hugo wrote: “So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality” his book would not “be useless.”

A century-and-a-half later, his novel survives less as a social critique than a tale of redemption. The confrontation between Javert, representing the letter of the law and the wrath of God, and Valjean, embodying the spirit of the law and true charity, is certainly relevant today. 

 

Lawrance Bernabo is the inordinately proud owner of a pillow his wife made from a “Les Misérables” t-shirt.

 

If you go:

What: “Les Misérables,” a musical by Alain Boublol and Claude-Michel Schönberg, based on a novel by Victor Hugo

Where: Symphony Hall, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center

When: 7:30 tonight through Saturday

Tickets: Start at $48, available at duluthplayhouse.orgticketmaster.com and the DECC box office.

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