Who can follow this plot? "It's about the French Revolution," a woman sitting behind me explained to her confused companion at the intermission. No dear, it's not. We'll be treated to that cheery episode later this month in a (mercifully nonmusical) adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities at the hands of St. Louis Shakespeare.
The French Revolution was waged between 1789 and 1799. This lugubrious opus doesn't even begin until 1815 and then proceeds to drag out through another two decades. So what is everyone in Les Miz fighting and dying about? Apparently there was some general named Lemarque though why the offstage death of an unseen non-character should engage a 21st-century audience continues to elude me. I don't believe that anyone seeing this show for the first time could sit down at the end of its three-hour running time and recount in any great detail what just transpired. Much less why.
There needs to be a crystal-clear delineation between the material and how it is being presented. Although I might find this admittedly popular musical to be sterile and even foolish, I also can recognize that the current Muny production is a triumph of stagecraft. If you can close your ears to all the hollering that is supposedly passing for bravura singing and just watch the flow and movement onstage, you will see something astonishing: You will see every inch of the vast Muny stage being used to its utmost.
In reviewing Hello, Dolly! last month, I wrote that if the Muny wants to present satisfying theater on a regular basis (and I have no reason to believe that it does, though St. Louis audiences deserve no less), the first step is for management to hire directors who know how to direct. Director Fred Hanson and his associate Evan Ensign have worked with Les Miz for years. They knew what needed to be done in order to adapt this glop of a show to the Muny stage. They made the kinds of artistic demands that have not been made nearly enough (if at all) in Forest Park of late demands of the scenic designer (would you believe? We have sets that are not saturated in blue paint for a change), demands of the lighting designer, demands of the orchestra (which, under the musical direction of Dan Riddle another Les Miz vet rises to the challenge and plays this insistent score magnificently). Everyone rises to the challenges; it's as if the Muny designers and musicians and ensemble have all just been waiting to be put to the test. But getting tested doesn't much happen in Forest Park nowadays.
Because this director knew what he could make work at the Muny and knew where and how he had to simplify, the end result is a revelation that although still tedious almost beyond the point of toleration is much less onerous than the set-heavy touring version that played the Fox. This staging is the polar opposite of heavy. Instead of trying to overwhelm us with technology, it uses space and simplicity to wondrous effect.
Consider, for instance, the final scene with Javert, the menacing symbol of authority who has devoted his life to relentlessly pursuing our protagonist, the much put-upon Jean Valjean. (First, a nod to Jeff McCarthy, who in Javert has finally found a role at the Muny that allows him to play into his natural heaviness rather than forcing him to hide that austerity under a contrived pseudo-charm in shows as disparate as the classic Guys and Dolls and the lamentable Roman Holiday. This is McCarthy's best work at the Muny.) As Javert nears the end of his life, he sings about staring into the void. At this point the full stage is totally bare. I mean, totally. And McCarthy slowly, inexorably, works his way into the void upstage.
Wait a minute! Did I just say "upstage"? What's going on here?! No one but no one is allowed to cross upstage at the Muny.
One of executive producer Paul Blake's principal (and fatal) dictums is that actors are only allowed to move downstage. Any time an actor attempts to go anywhere else, Blake bleats out the same cynical, disdainful response: "It's the Muny, darling." What a profound pleasure it is to find in Fred Hanson a director who was not bound having to stage the entire show downstage. This riveting of Javert's suicide a theatrical collaboration between director, actor, conductor, orchestra, lighting designer and even, on that bare stage, the scenic designer is one of the most stunning effects to be seen at the Muny in years. Stunning in and of itself, but also a stunning reminder of how functional this unique 89-year-old theater can still be when given the chance.
And it's not just this one scene. Every moment in Les Miz is filled out. Every single bit player is credible. (Even when they don't have anything to say, members of the ensemble stand in character.) Contrast this to The Pajama Game two weeks ago when nearly every line uttered by the supporting actors ranged from insufficient to downright bad. But with Les Miz you can almost visualize the director and his assistant drilling the ensemble to get everything right.
The Muny likes to boast that their productions are locally mounted, but that really only works when the guest director already has a history with the show. It's also helpful when the Muny hires the proper actors. Ivan Rutherford, who has played Jean Valjean on Broadway, arrived at the first day of rehearsal with a command of the role. Rutherford delivers a persuasive performance fitted to the Muny stage (though I hope his contract protects him against having to pay for a hernia operation, which he risks needing after almost every song). It's when the Muny artistic leadership is left to its own devices ("What shall we do with this scene?") that it fails miserably. That's when we hear wailing about "we only have a ten-day rehearsal schedule." If Les Miz could be staged in ten days and look as sharp as this production does there's nary a show in the repertoire that couldn't be done on a ten-day schedule.
We had two productions this summer Hello, Dolly! and Les Miserables that are telling reminders of how uniquely special a well-staged show can be at the Muny. As gratifying as they were, these two musicals also serve to remind us of how deficient most of the productions in recent memory have been. One outstanding show could be chalked off as a fluke, an aberration. But to see two shows staged within an inch of their lives is to confirm that this kind of quality can and should be the norm, and we should never again have to settle for less. ("It's the Muny, darling.") How sad that in recent years Muny audiences have been duped and numbed into accepting the second-rate. But I hope that Richard Millman, chairman of the board of directors, sees Les Miz and realizes what a disservice the board is doing to the entire city when it turns a blind eye to Blake's continuing commitment to mediocrity.
No, Les Miz is not about the French Revolution. But here's hoping that it might start a revolution of another kind and help to remind St. Louisans of what a thrilling civic treasure the Muny truly is when it's properly used.