News Column

Balagan Theatre's small-is-bountiful 'Les Miserables'

September 12, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 12--Three decades after it marched triumphantly into London and Broadway theaters, "Les Miserables" is trending again. Mais bien s r, the smash-hit pop operetta based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel is a load of retro-romantic kitsch, rigged up with dying-breath arias and noble sacrifices and begrimed, clamoring peasants.

But those 19th-century tropes of romanticism can still seduce, as the hearty 25th anniversary touring version of "Les Miz" (seen at the Paramount Theatre in 2011) proved.

Or they can be so overwrought the manipulations get insufferable, as in the 2012 movie. It got so up-close-and-personal with the characters that you could see up Anne Hathaway's nostrils and down to Hugh Jackman's tonsils in extreme close-up.

Now comes, yes, another "Les Miz," this one from Balagan Theatre. The most immediate and cozy version to hit Seattle, it transmits all the fire and sweep and sap of Hugo's epic tale of love, rebellion and redemption in France. It moves through three hours like a shot. And it introduces (and reintroduces) some beguiling young musical-theater artists to the local scene.

Louis Hobson, who has made the leap from leads in Seattle to featured roles on Broadway, makes a welcome return to the Seattle stage. The new artistic director of Balagan, he anchors the show with a finely tuned turn as Jean Valjean, the ex-convict haunted by the cop Javert (Michael Dunlap), and the devoted surrogate father of the adorable orphan Cosette (Shaye Hodgins).

A charismatic leading man and sonorous singer, Hobson has also become a more sophisticated actor. Though he reads young for the part, his Valjean is affectingly watchful and wary rather than bombastic, understated in both his fear, strength and nobility -- the latter sensitively communicated in his rendition of the tender "Bring Him Home."

The singing is generally impressive here, particularly the chorus of more than 20, accompanied by Nathan Young's capable 14-member orchestra. The Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schonberg/Herbert Kretzmer score is rich in bracing choral setpieces ("The People's Song," "One Day More,"), which come through powerfully here.

One happy find among the young leads is Brian Giebler, whose choirboy looks and faultless high tenor make him a winning Marius, the ardent young revolutionary. Other finds: Hodgins, a lithesome teenager with angelic pipes, and Danielle Barnum, as the tough and yearning Paris gamine Eponine, who carries a flaming torch for Marius.

There are two unfortunate weak spots in the principals. Though his opera-trained bass fulfills the vocal demands of Javert, Dunlap is an alternately wooden and grimacing actor -- which disappointingly undermines the psychological battle between the stalker and the stalked (Valjean), which is so central to the story.

I feel for anyone trying to breathe believable life into the pathetic prostitute/saint Fantine, but Tessa Archer doesn't come near that goal. She oversings, over-emotes and the character's fleeting, but significant, rapport with Valjean hardly registers.

But most of what happens onstage satisfies, including the deliciously cringeworthy clowning of a lusty Rebecca Davis and creepy Robert Scherzer as the comic relief, the despicable barkeepers the Thenardiers.

And for the whole mise-en-sc ne, praise goes to director Jake Groshong for his peppy pacing, with blocking in, around and through the audience; to ingenious set designer Ahren Buhmann and lighting designer Emmett Buhmann for deftly whisking us through many locales and time periods within the modest proportions of the Erickson Theatre; and to Lauren Karbowski for her tattered and posher costumes.

The unit set is a giant box which contains ladders, ropes, seats, tables, weaponry, gates, and everything else you need in your model "Les Miz" kit, all swiftly placed into service by a cast that doubles as a very efficient stage crew.

Balagan will be continuing its 2013-14 season at the far more spacious Moore Theatre, with the Seattle premiere of "Carrie the Musical." But good things can indeed come in small packages. And if you're a hopeless "Les Miz" addict, or want to be introduced to the show without overkill, be aware that tickets to Balagan's rendition are going fast.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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