Theater Review: Les Misérables at Benedum Center

Cameron Mackintosh’s slightly changed production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic Les Misérables retains its glory. I decided to see the revised musical, after having seen the original 1989 production several times in Los Angeles. Les Misérables recently returned to Broadway with new staging, which is mixed, and scenery inspired by Hugo’s paintings, which adds a flair, in downtown Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center toward the end of its run there.

The 19th century France-themed Les Misérables is an unforgettable story. The musical version softens the villainy while keeping the plot’s redemptive theme for every character that does wrong to any degree. The songs “I Dreamed A Dream,” “On My Own,” “Stars,” “Bring Him Home,” “One Day More,” and a great favorite, “Red and Black”, make this beloved musical one of the most popular in theatrical history.

This great musical is unique for its idealism and seriousness and this version did not disappoint. Nick Cartell’s Jean Valjean had a commanding presence. His “Bring Him Home” was easily the show’s most emotional performance. Other cast standouts include an actress named Phoenix Best as Eponine, a conniving ghetto girl who falls in love with a French aristocrat enlisted in an anti-government rebellion; she turns romantic, defies her father and fights for her true love. Matt Shingledecker as Enjolras was captivating in every scene, especially leading “Red and Black”, stupidly renamed “The People’s Song” against the very core of its meaning in this version. The actors playing the Thenardier couple overacted. Gavroche was too precocious (there is such a thing for this character, which entirely relies upon innocence for its full impact) though I think the part and the boy’s lines were rewritten to pander to modern parents, families and audiences.

The best performance belongs to Josh Davis as Javert. I’ve never liked this character and I still do not. I’m planning to review a few recent TV and movie versions of Les Misérables, which I’ve recently seen, and gained a new appreciation for the rationalistic policeman character. But Davis, whose physical, vocal and acting ability added dimension to his portrayal, delivered what for me is the first performance that makes his suicide truly meaningful, organic and impactful to the plot. I’m not a fan of the new set, which dominates the stage, though I was surprised at how much I like the infusion of pieces suggested by Hugo’s art. The barricade remains central to the performance.

Overall, I was as moved as ever, possibly more so because I’m older. What strikes me now, as against 30 years ago, when I first saw Les Misérables on the stage, is that the world has grown darker, more perverse, more desperate. The show’s explicitly Catholic underpinnings resonate less with the audience than its searching themes of wanting to examine and know who am I, what am I doing here on earth and how can I be my best. It was impossible during the often pin-drop perfect performance not to think of those young rebels in Hong Kong, and now also in Teheran and in countless other silent and unknown rebellions from Saudi Arabia to Communist Cuba, China and North Korea. I’ve the sense that I was not alone. Couples, families with children, older and younger adults of all types were held by the power of “Red and Black” (I refuse to call this poetry by its mangled title the people’s song) with the soft yet searing plea by an idealist to his fellow men:

It is time for us all
To decide who we are
Do we fight for the right
To a night at the opera now?
Have you asked of yourselves
What’s the price you might pay?
Is it simply a game
For rich young boys to play?
The color of the world
Is changing day by day…

Red – the blood of angry men!
Black – the dark of ages past!
Red – a world about to dawn!
Black – the night that ends at last!

Les Misérables endures, especially in the streets, back alleys and hushed halls of Hong Kong, where the anti-Communist rebels, young and old as in Les Misérables, unite, gather and mobilize despite China’s barbarism, brutality and oppression to sing the 1989 musical’s triumphant final “song of angry men who will not be slaves again”. In Pittsburgh this Thanksgiving, its banner waved with wonder, power and inspiration still.

The 2,800-seat Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, formerly a movie palace called the Stanley Theater before a $42 million renovation in 1987, affords intimacy and grandeur. Named for Mike Benedum, the son of West Virginian farmers and merchants who became a self-made, wildcat oil tycoon who made a charity after his only child died in 1918, the Liberty Street theater is nearly perfectly proportioned. I plan to return.

 

China, Asia and ‘The Last Emperor’

My recent post on Communist China, Hong Kong, Trump and the 2020 Democrats was on the cover of Capitalism Magazine. Though I do not endorse tariffs and I explicitly declined to do so or go into detail on trade, military and foreign policy, I credit the American president for ending 50 years of unchecked sanction and appeasement of Communist China. I also contrast the president with the 2020 Democrats in this context.

The impetus for writing my first and only positive Trump post since the pragmatist announced he was running for president four years ago is the realization that, for the first time in recent history, the U.S. government explicitly and actively challenges Communist China’s power, if not with consistency, let alone on principle.

This is thanks to Trump. I think opposing China is a mark of American progress. Read my post about Trump, Democrats and China on Capitalism Magazine here.

Capitalism Magazine also asked to reprint an excerpt from my review of Ken Burns’s PBS miniseries, The Vietnam War. Read the excerpt here. This is part of my recent series of Asian-themed posts, including a review of the Vietnam War-themed Broadway musical now touring, Miss Saigon.

I’ve also written a new movie review. Oscar’s Best Picture winner for 1987, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, has been on my list of movies to watch for many years.

Encouraged and emboldened by the protests for democracy and individual rights in Hong Kong, the pro-Western city now protesting control by Communist China, a cosmopolitan city which once welcomed American whistleblower and hero Edward Snowden, granting him sanctuary from the oppressive Obama administration, I recently watched the movie with China and its rich history in mind. Read my review of The Last Emperor, featured on the cover of The New Romanticist, here.

 

Theater Review: Miss Saigon at the Pantages

Though I never saw Cameron Mackintosh’s original 1991 Broadway production, let alone the 1989 production in London where it debuted, I’ve wanted to see Miss Saigon. I attended the revised Miss Saigon, which debuted five years ago, at Hollywood’s Pantages theater. The U.S. touring show, directed by Laurence Connor, disappoints for the lack of characterization, absence of conflict and mediocrity in music.

Unlike their outstanding adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables, main songwriters Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg wrote music as the plot instead of building music around the plot as was the case with Les Miserables.

Unfortunately, the music is mediocre — good at best — and never moving, so the light opera isn’t strong enough to fill in the numerous plot gaps. Chief among the gaps is an absence of what ought to have been the story’s source for a primary conflict: Communism. By avoiding the dictatorship of the proletariat imposed by North Vietnam, Miss Saigon dodges the question of why anyone would be terrified of remaining in Vietnam after Communist North Vietnam defeated nationalist South Vietnam in the Vietnam War.

This is an extremely important and fertile area for the theatrical work. The Vietnam War, which the official Miss Saigon website persuasively implies ought to be called the Second Indochina War, had a serious and devastating impact on the West in general and America in particular. To its credit, Miss Saigon dramatizes in light opera the agony faced by everyone who lost (and to a lesser extent “won”) the Vietnam War.

Miss Saigon is problematic. The leading man and the leading woman are too sketchy. There’s not enough definition, set-up or emotional power in Boublil’s book, Schonberg’s songs or its execution to sustain the show. 

The American soldier and his South Vietnamese prostitute aren’t merely stereotypical. They’re generic. This proves to be deadly in spite of the better songs. For example, Chris (Anthony Festa), the American soldier, barely gets to be a soldier for most of the show. Worse, he has no apparent goals, motives or ambitions beyond being with the prostitute or, later, his wife. He’s traumatized by nightmares but he’s never shown in combat, let alone in sustained exposure to trauma during war. So his torment is fleeting.

Kim (Emily Bautista), the South Vietnamese prostitute with whom he falls in love after one night in Saigon, likewise never expresses interest in any other endeavor than being a wife, mother or daughter. This makes it difficult to see this pair as fully functional young adults making choices — including the sort of dark and serious choices the plot hinges on — in a war-torn or postwar-torn world.

Other characters have problems, too. The Engineer (Red Concepcion), which could’ve been given depth, nuance and pathos, is ultimately cartoonish. The character is basically Kim’s pimp. Like the Thenardier couple in Les Miserables, if not as evil, he provides a degree of comedy to the tragedy. 

He gets a backstory in the second act and it’s very interesting. But it raises more questions than it answers including how he came to want the American dream which he sings about and became knowing, corrupt and worldly. The character, which is integral to Miss Saigon, spends three years in a Communist concentration camp and barely shows the effects.

The interracial character could’ve been — and, in a better show, would have been — given an origin story with meaningful exposition. Even his nickname, the Engineer, could’ve been developed as a play on the monstrous social engineering brought forth by Ho Chi Minh and the Communists in the wake of a war which ravaged this agrarian Southeast Asian nation during three decades. Instead, he’s a comical pimp.

Other characters also squander potential. For instance, Gigi, the hooker with a heart of gold (and the come-on to match) pairs with another American soldier but exhibits kindness for the sweeter, more innocent Kim. Gigi’s Yankee soldier, John, offers a similar contrast. It’s his idea to hire prostitutes. He introduces Chris to Kim. In a way, he engineers their relationship. But it never goes deeper than that. And his entire postwar career inexplicably relates to fostering the war’s interracial children. John’s character could’ve really meant something. Instead, it sort of drifts without impact or definition. 

Then there’s Chris’s American wife, Ellen. She gets a new song in the revised production and it’s a good tune (“Maybe”). But, again, for a musical predicated on the idea of minding the life-changing meaning of epic romantic love, Ellen is without any evident interests, goals or principles beyond being a loyal and devoted wife. 

Finally, there’s the closest Miss Saigon has to an explicit villain; Thuy.

Thuy goes from the South Vietnamese soldier to whom Kim is engaged to a commissar in Communist Vietnam. What becomes of him serves as an important catalyst to the climax of Miss Saigon. With the bitterness, rage and cruelty of Strelnikov in David Lean’s epic war romance Doctor Zhivago (1965) and the sense of inevitability an otherwise decent man must face under Communism of Taganov in We the Living (1936), Thuy could’ve been one of musical theater’s great dark, tragic characters.

Each character is wrapped in a convoluted plot resulting in vagueness and disorientation. Miss Saigon begins in 1975 with no real sense of Saigon’s swirling, mass panic, desperation and madness. The musical contains none of that sense of urgency. Historic moments of Saigon’s last hours before it fell to Communists and became Ho Chi Minh City are relegated in this new production to a downsized series of scenes and numbers that lack scope and intensity and therefore snatch from Miss Saigon deliverance of its proper juxtaposition of agony, doom and wonder.

 


Interestingly, Miss Saigon, the stage musical, is an adaptation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly (1904), according to the musical’s website. But the source of inspiration for Puccini’s opera is the novelette Madame Butterfly, by John Luther Long. The site describes the story as “an 1898 Asian American romance that was published in American Century Magazine.” The novelette was apparently dramatized as a one-act play by David Belasco, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan. “After its 1900 premiere in New York,” Miss Saigon reports, “the play transferred to London, which is where Puccini saw it.”

Theater Review: Lights Out: Nat King Cole

“Is this how I’m going to go out?” American Negro singer Nat “King” Cole asks himself before performing for the final episode of his TV variety show after a makeup artist tries to apply cosmetics to lighten his skin.

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This question and how Cole answers it forms the basis for the wild fantasy that’s Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole at the Geffen Playhouse, which recently debuted in the Gil Cates Theater and runs until March 24. As Cole, Dulé Hill (NBC’s The West Wing, USA Network’s Psych) can sing and dance, which Psych fans already know, though he doesn’t come close to matching Cole’s smooth, crooning voice.

This harsh show business fantasy has eye-popping visuals, gimmicks and plot turns that keep the audience paying attention. It’s more modern social commentary than nostalgic performance evoking an American icon.

Indeed, playwrights Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor cast Cole as repressing or suppressing his inner rage as he prepares for the last broadcast of his variety show (Cole was TV’s first black host). Integrally, the 90-minute show revolves around tormented Cole as he ponders advice from pal Sammy Davis, Jr. (Daniel J. Watts) to “go out with a bang.”

With raw, inventive staging and lighting that mocks or challenges the audience, depending upon one’s perspective, the entertainer who broke the color barrier on television experiences his moral dilemma through song. Most of the Nat “King” Cole classics are performed, often with cutting tie-ins to racism and other cultural points, as an elfin Davis pops in and out of the show.

The climax comes with a tap dance-off between Hill’s Cole and Watts’ Davis, with choreography by Jared Grimes that requires more stomping and pounding than tap dance of the day. This, too, is part of the playwrights’ contention that beneath the lightness of song and dance men like the marvelously talented Nat “King” Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr., there must’ve been real pain and suffering. Lights Out provokes the audience to think about that and, though the show doesn’t match its mania with substantial dramatic scenes, there’s a sense in which its catharsis earns Cole’s happier song.