Taking the misery out of "Les Miserables"

Great American Melodrama finds the lighter (and shorter) side of the beloved musical

slinn@thetribunenews.comApril 11, 2013 

When “Les Miserables” premiered in London’s West End nearly three decades ago, the musical — with its larger-than-life characters, romantic story and soul-stirring anthems — sent shivers throughout the theater world.

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg adapted Victor Hugo’s monumental novel about life in post-Revolution France for the stage in 1980, more than a century after it was first published. Five years later, British theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh introduced “Les Miserables” to English speakers.

This spring, the Great American Melodrama offers its own take on the Tony Award-winning musical known lovingly as “Les Mis”: “Les Miserables … or a Whole Lot LESS Miserable.” Written by Tom Jordan with additional material by director Eric Hoit, the production runs through April 28.

Unscrupulous innkeeper Monsieur Thenardier (Alex Sheets) and his equally devious wife (Kat Endsley) serve as our singing, dancing tour guides through a truncated, two-act version of the beloved musical.

“On Broadway, this show was over three hours long,” they explain in exaggerated French accents, “but relax! Here, we got this baby down to an hour and 17 minutes.”

Although this “Les Miserables” follows the same basic plot as the original production, loyal fans might notice a few funny changes. Think silly voices, non sequiturs and song parodies of everything from Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” to Celine Dion’s “My Heart will Go On.”

Our story opens in 1815 in Digne, France.

Imprisoned for 19 years for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving family, Jean Valjean (DJ Canaday) — also known as Prisoner No. 8675309 in this version — is released on parole by policeman Javert (Philip David Black). He must forever carry a yellow ticket-of-leave identifying him as an ex-convict.

It isn’t long, of course, before Valjean breaks his parole by stealing silver from a kindly Bishop (Steven Frietas).

When the Bishop takes pity on the would-be thief instead of punishing him, Valjean vows to lead a virtuous life under an assumed identity. Seconds later, Javert finds Valjean’s torn-up leave ticket and pledges to hunt him down.

Eight years later, Valjean is the prosperous owner of the comically named Levijean factory in Montreuil-sur-Mer.

One of his former employees, Fantine (Crystal Davidson), has fallen on hard times after being forced to leave the factory. Now impoverished and wracked with consumption, she laments the loss of her beautiful locks in a spoof of the heart-wrenching “I Dreamed a Dream.”

Fantine’s big number is cut mercifully short by a hit-and-run accident. (Translation: She’s mowed over by a tricycle.) She dies only after securing Valjean’s promise to rescue her daughter, Cosette (Bethany Edlund), from the nasty Thenardiers and their bratty spawn, Eponine (Bethany Rowe).

The rest of the story should be familiar to anyone who’s seen “Les Mis” onstage or watched the big-budget film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Oscar winner Anne Hathaway. Valjean tries to start afresh with Cosette, who falls for student Marius (Frietas), but fate has other plans.

Performed in true Melodrama fashion with plenty of cheering, booing and hissing, “Les Miserables … or a Whole Lot LESS Miserable” is an undoubtedly daffy spoof — the kind of production that finds its cast traipsing through the sewers of Paris in one scene and participating in a goofy game show the next.

Those seeking a faithful rendition of the Broadway show should look elsewhere. But for audience members in the mood for a loopy send-up of one of musical theater’s most sacred cows, this parody is perfect.

Performances of “Les Miserables” are paired with the short play “Pirates Take the Stage,” created by Rowe, Sheets and Nova Cunningham, the Melodrama’s producing artistic director, with choreography by Billy Breed and arrangements by music director Sarah Wussow.

Black and Endsley set out for a high-seas adventure aboard the Painted Clam, a pirate ship commanded by Capt. Crunch (Sheets). He and his scurvy crew, including first mate Inigo (Canaday) and fashion designer Ted Gunn (Freitas), plan to turn these sorry landlubbers into a couple of buccaneers.

The two are a little reluctant at first, but once the cast leads them in a swashbuckling sing-along — featuring nautical numbers from “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Muppet Treasure Island,” to name a few — they’re ready to “Come Sail Away.”

IF YOU GO

"Les Miserables … or a Whole Lot LESS Miserable"
7 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 7 p.m. Saturdays and 6 p.m. Sundays through April 28
Great American Melodrama, 1863 Front St. (Highway 1), Oceano
$18 to $22
489-2499, or www.americanmelodrama.com.

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.



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