Sunday, July 12, 2015

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo – adapted by Jonathan Holloway

L - Sophia Lilinoe Cesario, Lonni Silverman, Angel Castellanos, Eric Myles Geller, Ellyn Stern Epcar,  & George Almond

I started reading Les Misérables by Victor Hugo a few weeks ago. Yes, I did. – Narrator

George Almond has taken on the monumental task of producing Victor Hugo’s 2,783-page novel “Les Misérables”.  And with the help of Jonathan Holloway’s adaptation, Almond brings forth this epic novel in a form of a three-hour play.

Somehow I didn’t think this was possible much in the same way that I didn’t think it was possible to make a musical of this book.  In retrospect, I was misguided.  But the overwhelming immensity of turning the novel into a play, well, I’m getting ahead of myself.   

Planta Genista Productions presents Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables adapted by Jonathan Holloway and directed by Jed Alexander at Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles, California through July 26th, 2015.

Hilletje Moller Bashew, a violinist, provided the entertainment on this night. Two lovely women dressed in 1930s wardrobe tangoed across the stage, bodies together, and barebacked.  The heat rising from their bodies, a risqué moment observing legs intertwined as two women danced within a smoke filled tavern.  And they danced without a care in the world.

Slowly, the characters came out, fatuously jostling, one by one, and interacted with the audience. Little Cosette (Sophia Lilinoe Cesario) sang a little ditty while her poor mother Fantine (Savannah Crafton) looked on. Thenardier (Eric Myles Geller), an obstreperous bum, was caught digging through the trashcans and being annoying to onlookers who might have change to give him. And one character (Lonni Silverman) juggled a ball, one ball. These actions added an interesting flavor to the night and gave credence to the period of 1936 Paris. But, one naturally loves to see character development on stage after the lights go up.

Happily, this adaptation followed the book and was easy to follow.  The first act stayed true to the novel and felt like a homecoming of sorts, reaffirming what I remembered.

In this version, M. Madeleine, also known as Jean Valjean (George Almond), is a successful nightclub owner of the Le Caveau de la Jazz nightclub.  He is a suave, articulate, sophisticated man about town.  He is also hiding from his terrible past, that of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her seven hungry children, and then escaping from prison for his petty crime.  He is now, technically, a fugitive.  

That aside, the actions inside his nightclub, gives us a feel of the time and the place. And shortly thereafter, a microphone is placed center stage and we are entreated to a version of “Embraceable You” (a 1928 song by George and Ira Gerswhin), sung beautifully by Fantine (Savannah Crafton).

Savannah Crafton

But the song only carries Fantine slightly beyond her hardened heart.   She is desperate to have someone care for her daughter, Little Cosette. 

Fantine, at this moment, lacks judgment possibly because of her hunger and alcohol abuse.  She has little skills in judging character and selects the first person in her line of vision—Mme. Thenardier, the innkeeper.  

Giving Cosette away to strangers is an act worst than throwing her to a pack of the wolves, and yet Fantine, exhaling life, and in a miserable act of desperation, releases Cosette’s tiny little fingers into the rapacious claws of Mme. Thenardier.   

M. Thenardier (Eric Miles Geller), drinking at the bar, hears the conversation and jumps in on his wife’s moneymaking venture to squeeze the last 57 sous out of Fantine.  Fantine reluctantly agrees and off the Thenardiers roll with little Cosette to abuse her as they see fit.   

So, as almost an afterthought to better her life, Fantine thinks she will settle herself, work hard, earn some money, then gather Little Cosette, and finally bring her home.  

Only a short time later, M. Thenardier and Mme. Thenardier write Fantine demanding more money.  

Meanwhile a letter comes for M. Madeleine asking him to become mayor of the town. He is ambivalent because of his past.  He reflects on his past to reach behind the bar to pull out the candlestick and his prison uniform. He has a solid reputation now, is a perfect gentleman, a loved pillar of society, and he wants his past to remain hidden, a secret forever.

But just as it seems that everyone has forgotten the prisoner, a moment passes to bring his past back to life.  A cart has fallen on Fauchelevent (Donald Wayne). Frightened men gather around the cart but their physical insufficiencies aren’t enough to save the poor man’s life much less his soul. M. Madeleine is hesitant, not wanting to give away his secret, his strength, but Fauchelevent is in such a terrible position that M. Madeleine cannot refuse to help.  

Inspector Javert (Joe Hulser) who knows that there is only one man who has the strength to lift the cart waits nearby and observes M. Madeleine lift.  

Quink (Eric Myles Geller) approaches Fantine, as she cleans tables in the bar, and indicates that he wants more from her than her work time.  And Fantine now feels the pressure from all sides as Mme. Thenardiers demands more money for Cosette.  And as the pressure mounts she is suddenly fired from the jazz club for her impudence and not giving in to his sexual advances.   

Now on the streets, Fantine resorts to selling her hair to support Cosette and then selling her two front teeth, for forty sous, yanked out by the sleazy demon barber (Donald Wayne).  All she has left is to sell her body.

And later, on the streets, Javert arrests a toothless Fantine for prostitution, a misunderstanding, due to a miserable man, Bamatabois (not seen), shoving snow down her back. 

When the mayor, M. Madeleine, finds out, he orders Javert to release the prisoner.

Fantine spits in M. Madeleine’s face for having her fired at the jazz club. M. Madeleine sees beyond Fantine’s frustration and takes her to his home to care for her and promises to bring Little Cosette home.   

Later Inspector Javert visits M. Madeleine to say that he had reported him to the French authorities - that M. Madeleine was in fact Jean Valjean - but he says the he was mistaken, that the authorities have told him they found Valjean, in another town parading around as a man name Champmatheiu (not seen).

In reality M. Madeleine knows him to be an innocent man.

Javert then asks for M. Madeleine’s forgiveness and asks to be dismissed from his position but M. Madeleine refuses.

Later M. Madeleine travels to get Cosette but sympathetic matters divert him to Jean Valjean’s trial. Fed up with the injustice M. Madeline confesses in the courtroom that he is the real Jean Valjean and flees to Fantine, without Cosette, empty-handed. (This is not seen in the play but intimated in the following scene.)

Now that M. Madeleine has revealed that he is the real Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert shows up to arrest him.  With the help of Sister Simplice (Lonni Silverman), Jean Valjean flees and finds Little Cosette and both escape in the cover of darkness to find sanctuary.  

Opening night presented some challenges, mostly to the actors settling down and feeling comfortable on stage.  By the time you read this, the actors will have taken a deep breath, advanced into the roles, become more comfortable with the lines, and hit their marks.

Jed Alexander, the director, places these events from 1936 through 1945 in Paris, France and overall the play works nicely.  If you have read the book, or seen the musical, the characters and the events fall into place. With intermission, the play, approximately 3 hours, needs trimming. At times, actors were without lights, behind the bar, or downstage right (the cart scene).  Also, Alexander requires a stronger hand to take tighter reigns with the various styles of acting if only to smooth out the edges that were very prevalent on stage.  Also, Jean Valjean’s getaway from Javert after Fantine’s death was not clear. A stage knife was downstage left three scenes after it originally appeared until someone noticed and took it away. Also, with some creative staging, one could see this play without any set pieces or moving walls with the actors on stage the entire time. Each character in this play is fighting for a piece of the action, and a better life.  When they don’t get it the conflict is heightened, the tension is real, and they play will garner more emotional support.  

But, that said, I enjoyed the night and have more to say about the terrific performances on stage.

George Almond presents an impressive figure as Jean Valjean.  As M. Madeleine, the suit makes the character and gives him a level of sophistication.  Almond requires a little more to give us Jean Valjean’s backstory, more of how he left that life to become M. Madeleine, and how he will lose everything he has worked for if he is ever found out. Also, he needs to make more of the moment when he discovers Cosette. One would like to see the guitar work, or left behind, because now it serves as a distraction and does not progress any of the scenes. Almond has a wonderful voice, sweet and melodic, gentle and passive.  Still, there is more to be had here.

On interesting thing about Joe Hulser’s performance as Inspector Javert is his tenacity at getting his man.  With his leather jacket and Gestapo look, he just keeps coming.  Javert is miserable in his own right trying to be right in a world shaded in various tones of grey. There is a point in the play where he confesses to the fourth wall about finding the real Jean Valjean that does not heighten the tension.  That scene needs all the conflict one can muster. (Perhaps nose-to-nose downstage with Valjean facing upstage. That aside, Hulser is an impressive actor with a very commanding presence on stage and each entrance is one to regard and to take note.

Savannah Crafton plays Fantine and I loved her version of “Embraceable You” that puts us in her corner right away.  The song was performed to the nightclub audience but could also include Cosette in the audience.  Also desperation is important for this character to work, each action a desperate attempt to save her daughter until she is beaten down so bad that she can no longer fight.  Crafton must find a way to develop that desperation. And her costume must be more tattered each time she appears on stage.  She must also find a way to dress her pulled teeth rather than hide them. Crafton also plays the older Cosette and a storm trooper.

Eric Myles Geller has a very strong voice and physical presence as M. Thenardier, Quink, Gribier, Enjolras, and Baron Thenard.  And while there was some very good work going on here, the work was not varied, the costumes were all slightly similar, and audacious gestures with wrists on the hips, hands projected out, or arms flailing should find a way to progress his scenes.  Still Geller provides a very physical presentation for each character but still must find a creative objective for each of those characters, especially M. Thenardier.  

Ellyn Stern Epcar, as Mme. Thenardier, was as nasty as they come but also brought much needed humor to the play. Epcar was delightful in many ways despite being the heavy.  Epcar also played Abbess, Charwoman, and Partisan.

Lonnie Silverman gives an impressive performance as Eponine all in the name of love.  She is stunning on stage and gives a lot of heart to the character striving with every breath to get the man she cannot have.   Silverman also plays Sister Simplice and a Partisan.

Angel Castellanos is Marius and Paul.  Castellanos has a strong voice and a nice way about the stage.  As Paul, he seemed to be the presenter of the facts and there was a lot of information to say and absorb. But, we are given this information with little reason for why he is saying it. If the actor is unsure then he should make up the reason that is creative and related to the progression of the story and the characters.  One believes it is all in the name of telling us why the French are so French.  

Sophia Lilinoe Cesario plays Little Cosette and she is very cute and does well on stage.

Donald Wayne does a nice job as M. Fauchelevent, the man who was almost crushed under the cart and later to returns to provide sanctuary to Jean Valjean and Cosette.  Wayne also plays the confoundedly gross Barber who was slightly lost in his action and moments on stage on this night with this character.  Wayne also plays the Beggar and Nazi Commander who kills, well, I can’t say.

Jonathan Holloway’s adaptation stays true to the book except he moves it to 1936 Paris.  The second act includes the Nazi influences.  It works to a limited degree, the confusion of the time after Waterloo vs. the confusion of war torn Europe.  But whether it was confusion of the actors saying the lines or some other thing that had one of the characters 123 years of age. One suspects it was a mistake on this given night. And what was the purpose of expressing the times and dates of the history of France unless it leads us somewhere? There are a number of themes going on in Victor Hugo’s novel. Number one is all of the characters are miserable in their lives but each striving, no hungry, for a better life.  And in the end only Cosette manages to escape the horrors of poverty and in reality it took all of the characters, through their actions, to get her there.

Other members of the crew and some serving as members of the cast are as follows:

Sophie Gana – Production Stage Manager/Associate Producer
Ian Hyde – Assistant Stage Manager
Michael Kozachenko – Lighting Designer – The flashing lights in the audience eyes was a bit obtrusive during the gun firing scenes.
Brandon Molnar- Projection Specialist – There were some very nice shots of Paris projected onto the walls.
Matt Franta – Fight Choreographer – Very nice job.
Danielle O’Neill – Artistc Consultant
Melissa Shain – Assistant to Danielle O’Neill
Philip Sokoloff – Press Representative

Run!  And take someone downtrodden, who has lost his or her home, but is being helped and is on the road to recovery.

No comments:

Post a Comment