The very first moments of Signature’s
Les Miserables may have you checking your tickets to see if you’re at the right show. Set in the miserable prison holding Jean Valjean (Greg Stone), the show opens with the disquieting view of paired duos of bare-chested inmates, as frozen in place as statues, poised to pull cables attached to chairs dangling overhead. Can this dark and intimate version of the blockbuster musical possibly work? Yes, and then some. Eric Schaeffer has boiled down the lavish spectacle to black-box theater size, and nothing is lost in the process.
The production is still a major undertaking for Signature, however, with 28 performers and a 14-piece orchestra. (Yes, the actors are wearing the dreaded body mics, but the vocal amplification seems minimal.) The five-ton steel, black-painted, thrust-stage set framed with piles of tangled rubble by Walt Spangler takes up most of the floor of Signature’s MAX Theater, stretching irregularly to within inches of the 280 seats, some of which are tucked into nooks and crannies. That puts the audience seemingly in the middle of scenes, allowing Schaeffer to refocus attention on the characters whose lives are shattered by revolution. And while there is no revolving stage, a hallmark of Broadway and touring productions of the show, a flying steel platform and Mark Lanks’ complex and frequently startling lighting of the generally dark stage are reminders of the show’s pedigree as a spectacle.
Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel of hardship and revolution in France in the first decades of the 1800s tells the story of Valjean, who spends 19 years at hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon his release, he takes on a new identity, gains wealth, and becomes the guardian for Cosette (Stephanie Waters), the young daughter of the doomed prostitute Fantine (Tracy Lynn Olivera) — all while being pursued through the years (and the ill-fated student revolution) by the obsessed and tyrannical Inspector Javert (Tom Zemon).
Fans of the show will notice that John Cameron has downsized his original orchestrations, played here under Jon Kalbfleisch’s direction. The new charts occasionally lack some of the desired fullness one might wish for, but there are compensations in the cast’s powerful singing, especially from Felicia Curry’s heart-tugging Eponine, Olivera’s tragic Fantine, Andrew Call’s fervent Marius, and the two leads. Stone radiates a calm inner peace as the virtuous Valjean, while Zemon revels in Javert’s obsession. Schaeffer has altered the method by which we say goodbye to Javert — in a manner of which Hugo may not have approved, but which is nevertheless effective.
Meanwhile, Curry puts her own stamp on “On My Own” with more pop than Broadway in her sweet vocalization. Olivera’s rich voice is heartbreaking in both its clarity and intensity in her soaring rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Sheri Edelen and Christopher Bloch provide both comic relief and a sense of cynical nastiness as the grasping Thénardiers, and their rowdy singing of the boisterous “Master of the House” is complemented by Karma Camp’s inventively lively choreography.
Indeed, this revolutionary restaging of Les Misérables may give the show a new life in regional theaters.