Can You Hear The People Sing...

Ever since I was a very wee lass, I've been a fan of musical theater. When other kids were singing along to Raffi in the back of their moms' vans, my parents were weaning me on a musical diet that consisted of Cats, Phantom of the Opera, My Fair Lady, A Chorus Line, and Les Misérables. Of these, Les Misérables was my undisputed favorite. Before the age of five, I had virtually all the songs memorized. So when I turned five, my parents decided to take me to see it live. Granted, I was probably more mature than your average five year old, but they still had to teach me to wedge my fingers in my ears and scrunch myself down in the seat so I couldn't hear or see the scene in which Fantine dies, as the thought of a mother dying never ceased to drive me to horrific sobbing.

I managed to make it through my first viewing of Les Miz without tears, and I was hooked. In the past twenty years, I've seen the show seven times (though one of these was a production at my high school, but I'm counting it anyway). Whenever it comes through town, I make an effort to go, so when I was checking the theater listings for the year as I wrote up my 2011 "to-do" list and spotted that the new 25th anniversary touring production would be coming to Chicago, I added it to my list right away.

Since Justin also enjoys the theater, I thought perhaps tickets to see Les Miz would make a good Valentine's Day gift, so I pulled some strings through my network, and scored some fantastic seats. True, a musical in which all but two of the major characters die might not strike everyone as a romantic way to spend one's Valentine's Day, but we would be doing something we both enjoy, and I would be sharing one of my favorite things with him. What's not romantic about that?

As I mentioned, the performance that we saw was a new staging of Les Miz, created in honor of the production's 25th anniversary. Most notably, it eschewed the minimalist stage design of the previous versions I'd seen, in favor of elaborate, multi-layered sets and brighter, more complicated lighting schemes. It felt almost as if they were trying to brighten the somber tone of the story by dressing it up in fancier packaging, which isn't inherently a bad thing; it's just not what I'm used to.

Sadly, I felt that the singing talent of this version wasn't up to par with some of the productions I've seen in the past. This could be because we were subjected to the understudy for the main character, Jean Valjean, who lacked the proper vocal range for the role and often compensated by speaking his lines instead of singing them. For a musical that is "sung-thru," much like an opera, speaking is not acceptable in my book.

Also, there was a glaring, questionable casting choice for the character of Éponine. When the character first makes her appearance in the story, as a child, she is Caucasian, and the child of Caucasian parents. Midway through the story, however, when she appears an adult, the actress portraying her is African-American. I'm all for color-blind casting when it comes to theater, and challenging our expectations for characters, but I think they should at least be consistent. It's beyond confusing when a character changes race halfway through a story. The actress was perhaps one of the better singers in the entire production, but it was still an odd choice, in my estimation.

Unfortunate casting issues aside, I was still moved by the Les Miz magic. The songs held me in their thrall as I silently sang along in my head, and I'm pretty sure Justin enjoyed it as well, perhaps even more so than I did, as he didn't have six other versions to compare it to. I was overjoyed to share something so close to my heart with the man I adore, in celebration of a holiday that is all about love, and I'm excited to keep sharing these things with him in the future to come.

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