I had a musical-theater-induced flashback recently at the Fisher Theatre. It’s been about a decade since I first saw Les Miserables. It was a national touring production, and I was enchanted.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone, because since the show’s 1985 debut, at least half the free world has been enchanted by the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel.
And they see it again and again, despite the fact that just about every major production I’ve seen — at the Fisher, in London, and elsewhere — employs the same staging, costuming, settings, etc.
For a show about young French revolutionaries, there’s hardly ever anything revolutionary about a big-budget production of Les Mis.
So Les Mis is back at the Fisher in front of the same big houses, getting the same big standing ovations.
No, the audience doesn’t seem to mind that Cosette is in pretty much the same inn wearing the same ragamuffin costume she wore a decade ago. Or that the same Gavroche rides on the same cart with the same giant red flag waving in the background. Or that the stage rotates during several scenes in the same way it did before and the students will die on barricades that look the same as they did 10 years ago.
I could go on, but frankly I didn’t mind the similarities all that much either.
You see, watching a big production of Les Mis is like eating out at a chain restaurant. It’s a safe bet. There are few risks. You know the meal is going to be pretty good.
You’ve been to one Chotchkies, you’ve been to them all, right? You are not going to throw down your napkin and declare that the “pizza shooters, shrimp poppers and extreme fajitas” you just wolfed down were the best thing you’ve ever eaten. You’ll leave pretty satisfied, and so what if you are not enlightened.
(And, while I’m running with the Office Space references, ever notice how everyone in Les Mis has a bad case of the Mondays?)
Les Mis is one of those shows that doesn’t need to be reinvented to be successful. And frankly, most theatergoers are content to see the 1800s costuming, the spinning set, the shadowy lighting. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. It works.
The production at the Fisher was every bit as good as others I’ve seen, including a grand one in London’s West End. The ensemble was strong. The timing, the acting, the singing, the comedy, the drama were all there. There were even some standout performances.
James Clow’s Javert — the uptight inspector who has an obsession with catching a bread-stealing do-gooder named Jean Valjean — is one of the best portrayals I’ve seen. His posture told the whole story: Clow stood stiff and upright, never slouching, never flinching. His voice was superb as well. When Javert and Valjean spar in the middle of Act I, technically Valjean wins, then escapes to rescue young Cosette. But in this show, I’d have to say Clow’s Javert won the match, at least vocally. Randal Keith, to be sure, was every bit as passionate and earnest as the Valjean role requires, but Clow hit low and strong, and his deep voice took the scene.
Also notable was Ma-Anne Dionisio as the older Eponine. She’s as talented an actress as she is a singer, and she had me wishing that sappy Marius would for once pick the street urchin rather than the prissy Cosette. Dionisio truly made one of the show’s best known numbers, “On My Own,” her own.
At the end of the day, Les Miserable at the Fisher is a solid show. It may not inspire, but it still enchants.
Les Miserables runs through Jan. 4 at the Fisher Theatre. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. There will be two 8 p.m. performances Dec. 22 and Dec. 29. Tickets are available at the Fisher Theatre box office and TicketMaster locations, or by calling 248-645-6666.Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey is a Detroit-area writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org