Friday, April 24, 2009

My unashamed love affair with Victor Hugo: Les Misérables in London

"Is there not in every human soul, and was there not in the soul of Jean Valjean, an essential spark, an element of the divine; indestructible in this world and immortal in the next, which goodness can preserve, nourish and fan into glorious flame, and which evil can never quite extinguish?" - Victor Hugo

This, one of the single most splendid events in my life, requires some preface.

It goes back to when I was a 14-year-old freshman at Overbrook High School. My English class was assigned a book report, and we could choose any book we’d like from our school library. I cannot imagine what led me to choose the thick, dense (but still abridged) Les Misérables by Victor Hugo—possibly the same masochistic impulse that led me to become an English major…

I had little experience in real literature then, and especially less in French literature. While my classmates read more familiar classics and novels less than 200 double-spaced pages, I kept my nose glued to my 700-page—abridged—tome. I fell completely in love with the book. My heart went out to each and every character, especially the ones who grow from children to adults over the course of the 20 or so years in which the book takes place: Cosette, Marius, and the Thénardier children. I also emphasized with every adult, especially because they were so pathetically human in their wretchedness.

In any case, I wolfed the book down, wrote a heartwrenching report of it, and put it away.

Fast-forward to last year. While browsing the library for the first time as a Rider University student, I found the old title sticking to the dusty, neglected books crowding the shelf of the French literature section. Again, something possessed me to pry it out of its deep rest. This time I felt compelled to absorb the full genius of Victor Hugo: I decided to read the full, unabridged 1300-page version.


It took me literally all year; I had to renew it over and over and put it away a few times for class readings and some awkward freshman social events. Still, I managed to finish it, overwhelmed but triumphant, during finals week in May 2008.

Earlier that spring, my friend Julie alerted me to the existence of not just a play, but a musical adaptation of this masterpiece. I was utterly impudent with her, insisting that there was no possible way this expansive, prolific, intellectual epic could be transformed into a 2-3 hour lyrical skirmish that would delight the masses. It’s too deep, wide-ranging, and all-encompassing. While it’s true the writers could cut Hugo’s historical and architectural tirades (by this time I was convinced I knew the sewer system of Paris better than the cleverest local street urchin), there were too many profound characters, too many riveting and suspenseful climaxes to work at all on stage, especially to an audience unfamiliar with the story.

Julie answered my defiant and fiercely loyal rambling by producing an old tape from her shelf and popping it into her VCR. It was “Les Misérables: 10th Anniversary Concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall.” I sat down to watch, still skeptical.

After the first 10 minutes, I was shocked to realize: the impossible had been done!

Of course, what I originally predicted was still, in a way, true: the musical’s writers, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, take liberties to cut out some characters and change others completely. They altered the timeline of the story to shorten the wooing period between Marius and Cosette into one day (not to mention the time preceding their love, when Marius knew Cosette and thought her a plain-looking girl). Still, I was mostly thrilled, with only one or two complaints of disloyalty (for example, the Marius of the original London cast—Michael Ball—is portly and middle-aged, when Marius is supposed to be the picture of a fervent, slender youth; and Gavroche’s large part in the book is condensed to a short revelation, a heart-breaking death and a few comedic lines in a song).

I became more excited when I heard we were going to see Les Mis in London with the BHP freshmen and accompanying faculty. When the day finally came, I believe must’ve been trembling as we rounded the corner and saw the incandescent lights of Queen’s Theatre, advertising the longest-running musical in London theatre history. I’m absolutely sure I was trembling when I departed the place, at least.

When we took our seats, I asked Julie if she had tissues just in case I couldn’t control my emotions. She affirmed, well-prepared for a complete sob fest. It’s a good thing she did, too, because I completely lost my head on at least four occasions.

I could write every tiny detail happily, as they stick in my memory well, but for the sake of you, reader, I’ll limit myself to the set and the four heartbreaking moments in the play.

The set is huge, and this spectacle, for better or for worse, is unavoidable in this kind of a West End blockbuster production; after all, the first act’s set alone must encompass four different settings or cities. A rotating circular floor board moves people and props from the foreground to the dark and hazy background. The second act reveals a sprawling, realistic, similarly rotating barricade; and these are just the floor pieces! Other constructions include the garden of Valjean’s house where Marius courts Cosette, the two-tiered slums of Paris, the bridge over the River Seine, the ABC café where the student rebels meet, the sewers where Valjean carries Marius, and the infamous inn Thénardier keeps.

One astonishing thing about this play is, just as Frederick Douglass hid some details of his cruel treatment as a slave that his readers would have a hard time believing, Les Mis, in all its painful power, doesn’t convey even a fraction of the characters’ suffering in the original story—especially of Little Cosette (played by Adrianna Bertola) and Fantine (played by Joanna Ampil). This brings me to my primary breakdown moment. I got choked up over Cosette’s simple, innocent, and extraordinarily childlike wishes for the mother and safe haven she never knew. In the next scene, Fantine, who fell ill from being out in the cold as a prostitute with only one ragged dress to cover her, suffered a horrible, fear-stricken death in the book, which was conveniently left out by the musical’s writers. In the play, her illness alone leaves her dead, after she gets haunted by hallucinations of Cosette and lucidly begs Valjean (played by Drew Sarich) to care for her orphan daughter. My only complaint is that Fantine’s voice seemed more fitting for Eponine’s typically rough, reedy part, as opposed to Fantine’s deep one.

That was the only time I cried in the first act, which is largely comprised of rising action, plotting out the climax and falling action of the second act. In the second act, I initially cried over Eponine’s earnest song, “On My Own.” Eponine (Cassandra Compton) had a chilling, harsh, and bitter voice; yet when she spoke with Marius (Gary Watson), she adopted a much more tender tone. I was moved especially by the fact that I was seeing Hugo’s genius come to life, knowing the full scope of Eponine’s character (in the book she tries to impress Marius by showing him she can read, write and look after herself in the city of Paris—quite an accomplishment for a working class female in the 1830s—but only Cosette’s blooming beauty can turn his head).

The scene at night in the barricade, in which Valjean prays to God to save Marius from death, didn’t make me cry; however, I feel compelled to remark on it, as Julie told me that Sarich performed the song better than any other version she’s heard of it. As it was only the second time I’d ever heard it sung, I wouldn’t be able to confirm this superlative, but I do remember it being phenomenal.

I must also mention two more expert actors: Edward Baruwa playing Enjolras and Hans Peter Janssens playing Javert. I was at first thrown off by Baruwa, just as I was when I saw the portly Michael Ball playing Marius—after all, Hugo’s Enjolras was not a black dude with a shaven head. Luckily, Baruwa immediately won me over with his beautiful stage presence and powerful, stirring voice. Janssens is perfect for his part in looks, and his voice and facial expressions were as striking as his rigid ideologies about the law.

I broke down most blatantly over the sudden, noble and fearless self-sacrifice Gavroche (Jonathan Chabala) made for the sake of the barricade. He murmurs his song tenuously, competing with the sounds of muskets firing at him, and pilfers dead soldiers for ammo. The song, which ends in “so you better run for cover when the pup grows up!,” is cut off by a striking, lethal shot. The drama of this was (surprisingly) not overdone, though the gunshot was startling; in cruel and perfect irony, Gavroche dies before he could get out the last word. In that moment, I heard the rest of the audience catch their breath; after all, the adorable, brave, mischievous orphan is everyone’s favorite.

Finally, I wept throughout the entire final scene, after Marius realizes Valjean is his savior and goes with Cosette (by this point grown up, of course, and played by Claire-Marie Hall) to Valjean’s deathbed. They make it just in time to say goodbye and for Cosette to learn the whole sad, socially unacceptable truth of her origin. Meanwhile, those two other careworn martyrs, Fantine and Eponine, glide onstage in angelic form to light Valjean’s way into death—and presumably, heaven. (If I make the musical sound corny and super-Christian here, I apologize; it’s really not too preachy or overwhelmingly religious) The musical comes full circle as Valjean achieves redemption for his past crimes.

I must add one more thing about the comedic element of the musical: the Thenardiers, played by Chris Vincent and Melanie La Barrie, were fantastic performers. Their voices and accents were apt, of course. More importantly, the scene at the inn was excellently choreographed, with lots of entertaining banter in gestures and body language (women slapping men’s faces for slapping their behinds) while the master and madame confess the hilarious details of their swindling, poverty-driven lifestyles.

Because of my undying devotion for Victor Hugo and his epic masterpiece of social commentary, political ferocity, and historical fiction, I also fell in love with Les Misérables the musical. I found it to be a gripping, mostly loyal adaptation of this miracle work of literature.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hamlet at the Lantern



Please follow this link to the Rider News for my review of the Lantern Theatre Company's production of Hamlet, the first Shakespeare production I've ever seen (isn't that sad?).

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spring Awakenings!

This is a comparison and contrast dual review between Spring Awakening, the play in Philadelphia and the Broadway musical in New York City. (Oddly enough, I saw both productions with another Jules: the musical I saw with my friend Julie last November before it left Broadway; and the play I saw with my boyfriend, Julius, on our first date last December.)

I didn't write a plot summary of each, but if you're unfamiliar with the story, feel free to read the wikipedia page on the musical and the play.

The numbered points will correlate with their contrasting numbered point between the musical and the play. But first, the commonalities:

BOTH

• Both have masturbation scenes, which are funny but still somehow wrong: the boy doesn’t have real privacy or permission to take care of a natural urge that all human beings have.

• Both productions included similar funeral scenes for Moritz: girls brought flowers and everyone paid him respects.

• Lots of dialogue from the straight play was lifted exactly as is into the musical’s lyrics.

• One surprising similarity between the two productions: Melchior reads from his diary. It seems to be the one connection between the two versions of the protagonist!


THE PLAY

by Frank Wedekind, new translation by Douglas Langworthy

Directed by Lane Savadove

Set Design by Corey Lunchuck, Nick Lopez, and Bart Healy
Lighting Design by Matt Sharp
Costume Design by Jamie Grace-Duff
Sound Design by David Cimetta

Stage Management: Michele Woodward
Technical Direction: Dan Soule
Production Management: Eric Snell
Sound Operator: Salome Harmon
Wardrobe: Arcadea Jenkins
Backstage Manager: Devin Soule

Moritz Stiefel: Doug Greene
Wendla Bergmann, Dr. Procrustes, Straightjacket: Megan Hoke
Ilse, Ina: Brenna Geffers
Martha, Frau Bergmann: Sarah Schol
Masked Man, Otto, Herr Stiefel, Billyclub, Ruprec: Ross Beschler
Herr Gabor, Pastor Baldbelly, Robert, Diethelm, Tonguetwist: Rob Neddoff
Ernst, Dr. von Quakenseltzer, Flyswatter, Helmuth: Sean Lally
Hanschen Rilow, Frau Stiefel, Monkeyfat, Reinhold: Nathan Edmondson
Melchior Gabor: Kevin Melendez
Thea, Frau Gabor, Locksmith, Fetchit: Kelsey Malone
Georg, Sunstroke, Gaston: Andrew Gorell

This is a review of the production Philadelphia-based theatre company EgoPo did the year before their one-night-only performance that I saw on December 13, 2008. It has a few different actors, but the same vision.

Here is the facebook event for the night I saw it.

And here is EgoPo's facebook page, from which I lifted these photos. The entirety of the pictures are from the original production, rather than the one-night-only; but many of the actors also played in the latter performance.

1. The set was amazing. The first act presented itself with the entire stage floor covered by a bed of bright flowers. Not a single bit of hardwood floor or dirt was showing. There were tables and chairs brought out by the actors at certain times to serve as school desks, coffee tables at home, and the barn loft where Wendla finds Melchior alone. When Moritz dies, the flower covering gets lifted like two rugs by bars on the left and right of the stage, revealing fresh dark dirt below. The flower rugs stay hanging ominously on the sides, dirt-side facing the audience, looking exactly like the borders of a grave.

2. This production was obviously more experimental, as EgoPo tends to do. The actors were more expressive and complex as physical individuals (whereas in the musical they incorporate several over-the-top dances for motion). As a reviewer from The Philadelphia Inquirer stated about EgoPo’s play, “Choreographed with...a high-precision physical performance style.”

3. All the adults wore grotesque masks to symbolize their loss of innocence and/or their corruption and/or their perpetuating distortion of reality (depending on the character, it could be any or all of these). Even Wendla’s sister, only a few years older than Wendla but recently married, had a half-mask covering her eyes and nose.

4. When Martha confesses she is physically abused by her parents, her friends treat this revelation with shock, then confusion and disdain.

5. In the play, Melchior feels terrible for beating Wendla, but it just made him go on to become a monstrosity.

6. Melchior raped Wendla, not out of love but fury and berserk passion.

7. The abortion scene is freaky and memorable here as well, but in this production it’s very graphic. Wendla screams and writhes on the table as the suspicious doctor utilizes a terrifying, spiky, metallic machine for the abortion; meanwhile, Wendla’s mother stands by watching. Obviously, this depiction was much more terrifying and brutal, but it’s also condemning Wendla’s mother and the conventions of society more for putting an innocent child in this position and then just idly standing by while she dies horribly.

8.
As you can see from the cast list, most of the actors also played slovenly, nasty professors (the names such as Sunstroke, Monkeyfat, and Flyswatter) but were totally unrecognizable in judge's robes and face-covering, monstrous pig masks. They not only wore twisted pig masks but also slobbered, touched themselves, snorted, grunted, wailed and carried on like the most inhuman, perverted creatures to ever walk the Earth. This was the scene in which they decided Melchior's fate, and it was actually one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Whenever the headmaster mentioned the words, "Our Institution," all the other professors raised up their arms and belted out one single high note like they were singing hallelujah in church. The headmaster preached like a reverend about upholding their high social and academic standards and gradually worked toward announcing the expulsion sentence for Melchior's daring to write an explanatory essay on sex. The rest of the professors, sitting down in chairs, were silent but overactive in the meantime, either twitching in excitement, panting, touching themselves or otherwise behaving in the most sexually perverse manner imaginable. The hypocrisy here was so shocking and bizarre that you can't help but laugh in amazement. There was also one minion named "Fetchit" who the headmaster kept summoning into the meeting to dispatch orders. Her repeated line, "At your command Headmasta!" as her jaw dropped open in mindless anticipation was actually strangely endearing. This entire scene is one of the best in the whole production and obviously conveys in physical form the director's unique vision of Wedekind's play.

9. The dinner scene with Melchior’s mother and father was one of the most interesting, suspenseful and surprising exchanges I’ve ever seen. They were arguing over whether or not Melchior should get sent to the reformatory. His mother, who did not believe he should be punished for the suicide of his best friend, was serving her husband dinner. He did intend for Melchior to be sent away, so throughout the scene his wife was yelling and throwing the food at him or pouring it on him in resistance—and he actually laughed at her and enjoyed this performance immensely. It was frustrating to watch for the mother’s sake, but it was really engrossing as a whole. In fact, I thought the audience couldn’t laugh aloud (except maybe once or twice as a nervous impulse) or even breathe during this scene, the actors were so riveting.

10. Melchior's escape from the juvenile correctional facility was prompted not by tenderness but because he wanted to come back and alleviate his guilt by taking responsibility for the child.

11. Melchior did not sob over the death of Wendla, because she was not truly his tender lover like the musical made them out to be. Still, he showed his vulnerability by being so disconcerted over the eeriness of the cemetery and the deaths. This Melchior was similar to the musical’s, however, in his disillusionment with humanity and the suffering good people go through in life.

12. The last scene in the graveyard was morbid, gruesome and brilliant. It was profound in its chilliness, with the bloody headless corpse of Moritz resurrected to speak to Melchior and try to convince him to join them. At other times, it was strangely lovely, with the exchanged glances between Melchior and Wendla when she lifted her placid mask of death. Melchior’s dance of indecisiveness with the masked man, who represented life, and his longing to rejoin his friend in peaceful rest were beautiful.

13. The ending was obscure and paradoxical. It was more realistic through its surrealism: the masked man, the headless Moritz at the back of the stage in half-light, and the bodies of the dead sitting on chairs with smooth, pure white, expressionless masks.

14. The actress who played Wendla, Megan Hoke, was perfect. She had an impish face and wide-open, bright hazel eyes constantly filled with wonder. Hoke also had a womanly, curvy figure, while her abrupt and playful motions as well as her impetuous curiosity were entirely childlike.

15. The actor who was Melchior, Kevin Melendez, is short, stocky and dark (very different from the musical's vision of the character).

• There were many mini-scenes going on at the same time on stage. One would be lit and acted out (like Frau Gabor wiring the letter to Moritz) and then the actor(s) would freeze there and the lights would come up immediately on the next scene (like Melchior stumbling upon Wendla or coming to meet Moritz) to create a solid pace and suspense.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Spring Awakenings!

This is the continuation of the comparison and contrast review between Spring Awakening, the straight play in Philadelphia and the Broadway musical in New York City.

THE MUSICAL

Book & Lyrics by Steven Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik, Based on the play by Frank Wedekind

Director: Michael Mayer, Music Director: Kimberly Grigsby, Choreography: Bill T. Jones

• Melchior - Hunter Parrish
• Wendla - Alexandra Socha
• Moritz - Gerard Canonico
• Ilse - Emma Hunton
• Martha - Amanda Castaños
• Thea - Caitlin Kinnunen
• Anna - Emily Kinney
• Hanschen - Matt Doyle
• Ernst - Blake Daniel
• Georg - Andrew Durand
• Otto - Gabe Violett
• Adult Woman - Christine Estrabrook
• Adult Man - Glenn Flesher
• Ensemble - Morgan Karr, Alice Lee, Eryn Murman, Zachary Reiner-Harris
• Swings - Jesse Swenson
• Understudies- Frances Mercanti Anthony, Tony Carlin

1. The set was a hardwood floor, with bleachers on the side where the chorus sat. The barn hayloft where Melchior and Wendla have sex is lifted above the rest of the stage with cords attached by the rest of the cast. These cords are brought out in a synchronized dance by actors during a song, “I Believe.” The whole below the “loft” also doubles as Moritz’s grave, which they drop flowers into in the next scene. Additionally, paintings and odd contraptions are nailed to back wall, as well as a suspended hardwood chair that Melchior ends up sitting in as punishment when he himself is suspended from school.

2. The style was more like rock & roll—for example, using microphones like pop singers and synchronized dances—to modernize the production. This managed to make a century-old play even more relevant (even though it already is—we’re still Victorians in prudishness, competitiveness, restrictive schooling, and oppressiveness toward children)

3. The adult characters were mostly crazy to be sure, but they didn’t wear masks or act like gluttonous pigs at any point. Maybe the creators/directors of the musical wanted the distinction between the adults and the children to be more subtle and below-the-surface, or maybe they wanted the children not to seem so young. In fact, scenes were cut showing the schoolboys playing games, the girls teasing each other…perhaps this was to downplay the childishness of the youthful characters.

4. An incest/rape song, “The Dark I Know Well,” is sad but empowering in its attitude of anger.

5. Melchior beat Wendla in both, but his horror was enough to make him learn how to control himself in this production.

6. Melchior and Wendla’s initial embrace was sweet: he listened to her heartbeat, shyly lifted her skirt and slowly unbuttoned her blouse and they sang “The Word of Your Body” before they made love. Also, the song “I Believe” was totally soothing as Melchior and Wendla were swayed on the lifted board by the other kids. Only four lines are repeated: “I believe/Oh I believe/There is love in heaven/All will be forgiven.” To say the least, this is completely the opposite from the tone in the straight play where Wendla gets raped.

7. The abortion scene is freaky; it is memorable but ONLY suggestive.

8. The scene where the school headmasters decided to expel Melchior precedes the song, "Totally Fucked," which is really lively and funny. Throughout the disciplinary meeting, Melchior was standing in front and the school headmasters in back; all of them faced the audience, but Melchior's head snapped to the left or the night, depending on who addressed him, just as if he had been looking at them instead of out at the audience. This was a really suspenseful scene, and this technique effectively worked up the audience for the climactic, chaotic song that immediately followed. “Totally Fucked” uses harsh language, but it's still a lot of fun and hilariously choreographed, with every single member of the cast running, kicking, screaming, twirling, jumping and so on. There’s nothing like it in the straight play, although the purpose of this song might be to make up for the scenes cut from the play illustrating juvenile behavior.

9. The dinner scene between the Gabors was almost nonexistent in the musical: that production showed a few exchanged lines of dialogue between the parents that was tenderer, and displayed his mother giving up fairly immediately without at all condemning the school’s headmasters or their community, etc.

10. Melchior escapes from the reformatory to come back to his lover Wendla and their child. Also, Wendla’s song wrapping up her story, “Whispering,” was hopeful: for example, she says “I let him love me,” even though in play he raped her.

11. Melchior wept when he discovered Wendla’s gravestone. It was her death that prompted him to almost commit suicide, as Moritz’s ghost looked on behind him.

12. The morbid graveyard scene was sad and touching in elegance, beauty, and the clarity of Wendla and Moritz.

13. The ending is obviously hopeful—Moritz begs Melchior to stay alive and be strong, whereas in play Moritz wants Melchior to join him and Wendla does not say a word/sing to him.

14. The girl who played Wendla in the musical, Alexandra Socha, is similar to the actress in EgoPo's production because they both have curiosity and a gentleness to them. However, Socha acts and looks more like a little kid than a young adult.

15. In the musical, the actor who plays Melchior (Hunter Parrish) is tall, svelte, blonde, and graceful like a dancer.

• The musical had an overall romanticized, not so much realistic, depiction of adolescence, ignorance, rape, suicide, murder by dirty abortion and other tragedies.

• The musical entirely cut the mysterious masked man and instead lent his words to Moritz and Wendla’s song “Those You’ve Known”