Tuesday, November 15, 2011

ADB's Theatre Critic Corner

In 1980, Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel released a concept album about the travails of prostitutes, workers, and students, which was universally panned by the French theater critics. Re-released, revamped, and retranslated into English sometime later, that same musical, Les Miserables, has gone on play for over 10,000 performances and win multiple Tony awards. A new, stripped down, off Broadway version has been playing for the last several weeks, bringing a new interpretation to the classical musical.

The story is familiar to any follower of musical theater: Jean Valjean, recently freed from prison for stealing a loaf of bread, tries to redeem himself, while being endlessly pursued by the ruthless Inspector Javert. On the way, Valjean saves a destitute woman's daughter and gets wrapped up in a Paris student Revolution. In this new version, however, most of this story has been cast off in favor of focusing solely on a modern retelling of the student rebellion part. It is a bold attempt at reframing the plot of the musical away from Jean Valjean and towards the everyday people building the barricades of Paris.

The Director, who's name escapes me, has managed to cobble together a lavish al fresco set along with a cast of hundreds. Where one would have expected to see an impressive rotating set, the director has, instead, chosen to immerse the viewer with in the action itself. This is not "theater in the round," rather, it is "theater around you."

Costumes are set in the modern period, with students, workers, and military all thoroughly represented. If anything, the attention to detail is a little too good: the actors themselves have a overpowering odor which is jarring, but fits within the context of the narrative.

The music too has been stripped down to it's barest roots; where one may have expect to hear such rousing songs as "One Day More," instead one hears incessant drumming, a clever play on the tension between the battle that is about to break out and the creative forces of the performers.

If there is a major flaw with the performance it is this: the director chose to drag out the activity before the storming of the barricade for far too long (several weeks too long, in this critic's opinion). The result is a bit of an anti-climax, although several people have assured me that the final scene will come as an utter surprise.

For all of its flaws, however, this version of the performance has already begun touring to excited audiences. The performance in Oakland CA was met with standing room only, shouting crowds so large that the police had to be called in to disburse the frenzied mob.

In all, it is an excellent performance, even if the director's message isn't very clear. I expect it to join the ranks of musicals like Rent, showing the gritty underbelly of New York from the safety of our theater seats.

(Terry Teachout is the Wall Street Journal's Theater Critic)

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