Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Les Miz at 10

Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Les Miz at 10 LES MIZ HITS 10
There was a good deal of pressure on the new company assembled to celebrate the 10th New York anniversary of Les Miserables; it's no secret that last fall a sizable shakeup of the Broadway production occurred, with the management dismissing a number of principal performers, asking others to re-audition, and bringing in many new ones. Then too, the 10th anniversary of Les Miz in London in 1995 was celebrated by a gala concert featuring a handpicked cast of veterans and telecast and enjoyed throughout the world.

LES MIZ HITS 10
There was a good deal of pressure on the new company assembled to celebrate the 10th New York anniversary of Les Miserables; it's no secret that last fall a sizable shakeup of the Broadway production occurred, with the management dismissing a number of principal performers, asking others to re-audition, and bringing in many new ones. Then too, the 10th anniversary of Les Miz in London in 1995 was celebrated by a gala concert featuring a handpicked cast of veterans and telecast and enjoyed throughout the world.

While I've always considered Les Miz a stirring show, I can't count myself among its greatest devotees, the kind who subscribe to the show's newsletter The Barricade and can name every performer who played Eponine on Broadway and in the West End; I actually much prefer the second Boublil-Schonberg-Mackintosh musical, Miss Saigon, to the first. But I have always had a good time at Les Miz (I'll never forget the excitement of the Broadway preview I attended, where the show was even more electric than it had been a year earlier in London), and eagerly accepted the invitation to attend the performance at the Imperial on Wednesday evening, March 12, exactly 10 years to the night that the show had its official New York premiere at the Broadway Theatre.

To get quibbles out of the way first, the new company is not quite a dream cast, but then it's unlikely that, 10 years into the run, performers of the caliber of the greatest Les Mizers (i.e. Colm Wilkinson, Patti LuPone, Debra Byrne, Anthony Warlow, Michael Ball, Judy Kuhn, Frances Ruffelle, Terrence Mann, Lea Salonga) would be willing to join on for an extended engagement as opposed to a one-night celebration. To generalize about the new cast, the principal men are somewhat superior to the women, and the uniformly effective performances are not always matched by ideal singing (to hear dream vocals, one should look to that London concert).

That said, the newly refurbished Les Miz is a grand show, reminding one anew of the enormous power of the Trevor Nunn-John Caird staging (it remains Nunn's finest musical theatre contribution). The first act finale still impresses as one of those moments where all the elements of musical theatre come together overwhelmingly, and the final scenes had their customary emotional impact. And I was fascinated once again to note that such a serious, three-and-a-quarter-hour opera became one of the biggest hits in the history of musical theatre.

I particularly liked Christopher Innvar's Javert, Stephen R. Buntrock's Enjolras, Peter Lockyer's Marius, and Fuschia Walker's Madame Thenardier. Robert Marien's Valjean is a dignified, heroic, satisfying creation. Two further notes about Marien: Contrary to widespread reports, he was not the original Paris Valjean. Maurice Barrier created the role at the Palais des Sports, Paris, in 1980, while Marien created it in the 1991 Paris premiere at the Mogador of the Cameron Mackintosh-Nunn-Caird version and can be heard on the double-CD cast recording of that production. And beginning next week, Marien will be spelled at Wednesday matinees and Thursday evenings by Ivan Rutherford. It was lovely to see Nunn in the auditorium embracing and reminiscing with such original Broadway cast members as Kuhn, Randy Graff, Michael Maguire, Leo Burmester, and David Bryant. And by the time the commemorative balloons descended from above, it looked safe to predict that Les Miz will not be leaving town for a long time to come. Cats is, of course, set to become the longest-running show in Broadway history in June after almost 15 years in town; Les Miz is now ten; and The Phantom of the Opera will celebrate the end of its first decade on Broadway in January. While I believe it's likely that Phantom will eventually take the title away from Cats, Les Miz could go another five years or more.


DONMAR COMPANY ON TV
On March 1 throughout England, BBC2 telecast the Sam Mendes production of Company that won enormous acclaim at London's Donmar Warehouse in late 1995 then had a commercially unsuccessful engagement the following spring at the Albery Theatre. This is the production already preserved on a First Night cast recording issued in the U.S. by RCA Victor, and not to be confused with the fall 1995 Roundabout Theatre Company directed by Scott Ellis and recorded by Angel. Taped at the Donmar in February, 1996, the BBC Company is the second Mendes/Donmar revival of an American musical televised in England, the first being the Cabaret still scheduled to be imported by the Roundabout.

While the Roundabout Company restored the cut song "Marry Me A Little" and featured some book revisions, the Donmar Company, in addition to the inclusion of "Marry Me A Little," offers George Furth's far more extensive book revision, featuring a new opening in which Robert listens to his phone messages; a new Robert-Kathy park bench scene; the new second-act Robert-Peter terrace scene in which Peter asks Robert if he's had homosexual experiences (he has), then makes a not-very-veiled and ultimately deflected pass at Robert; a new speech for Larry in the nightclub scene; and the elimination of the "Tick-Tock" dance. Almost all of these changes are included in the recently published version from TCG.

Aside from the vocal problems that caused leading man Boyd Gaines to miss more than half of the run, the Roundabout production's chief problem was that it was neither fish nor fowl: While it did not recreate the original Hal Prince staging, it was fashioned along the same lines and failed to supply a new take or concept that would have brought it to life. By contrast, the Donmar production looks nothing like the original, with a fine new design by Mark Thompson that has the audience seated on three sides of the stage floor. Upstage is a white brick wall, and on the floor and wall are all-purpose set pieces (a wall phone, chairs and tables, an exposed radiator); we are clearly in Robert's apartment, but the set functions equally well as the apartments of Robert's various friends. Two staircases on the sides of the stage lead to an upper bridge with a railing; the stage floor is covered with colored squares, and behind the bridge is a wall of additional colored squares that flash on and off during certain numbers.

Mendes sets the action very specifically in Robert's mind; it's his hallucination on the eve of his 35th birthday (the second-act opening "Side By Side" sequence is, in fact, Robert's coke-induced fantasy). Hinted at in earlier stagings, this concept is made overt here and is probably the best possible solution to staging Company these days.

And then there's Adrian Lester, whose Olivier Award-winning Robert solves the problem of the character through simplicity, sincerity, warmth, boyish charm, and fine acting. Lester has triumphed in such other productions as the National Theatre Angels in America and the Cheek By Jowl As You Like It (his Rosalind was also seen at BAM); he is soon to play Othello at the National. Even with some vocal shortcomings, Lester's work is so compelling that, perhaps for the first time, Robert becomes the most interesting character in the show.

Sheila Gish's mean-drunk Joanne is scary, sad, and memorable. Otherwise, the cast is a very mixed bag, with erratic singing and accents, but in spite of the uneven performances, I suspect this staging will be imitated in future small-scale productions of the show. If I didn't find this Company as brilliantly revelatory as London critics made it out to be, that could be because I saw the original Prince-Michael Bennett production many times, and none of the four revivals I've seen has come close to the brilliance and electricity of that version. As a matter of fact, the most exciting revival of Company I've seen was not a revival at all but rather the original cast reunion concerts staged in Long Beach, California and New York in 1993. Nevertheless, the Donmar production is continuously interesting, and Lester makes it a must-see.

Unlike the TV version of the Donmar Cabaret which had commercial interruptions and cuts, this Company is complete and uninterrupted; the two-hour-20-minute telecast is broken only by a short intermission feature in which Mendes interviews Stephen Sondheim about the origins of the piece.

Because the Roundabout Company was not a huge success and failed to fulfill an announced and advertised transfer, I suspect that the show will not be revived again on Broadway for quite a few decades. So it's likely that the BBC Company will be aired here, particularly as this production was hailed by several New York critics, including Vincent Canby in the New York Times.


SCREENING THE FANTASTICKS
Three weeks ago in this space, I concluded my ruminations on possible forthcoming film adaptations of stage musicals by mentioning that there was one--the movie of The Fantasticks --in the can for two years and still awaiting release. About a week later, I was treated to a screening of the film, and herewith are some comments.

Produced by United Artists and directed and co-produced by Michael Ritchie, The Fantasticks film is a fascinating, near-textbook example of the difficulties involved in adapting certain stage properties to film; it may ultimately demonstrate that, even with considerable effort and intelligence expended, some properties can't be fully translated, but it's an admirable attempt.

On stage, The Fantasticks is as much about the magic of the theatre and theatrical illusion as it is about a boy, a girl, and their fathers, the latter pair supposedly feuding but actually using reverse psychology to bring their offspring together. The stage text makes use throughout of theatrical artifice, with a carboard moon on a pole, a stick representing the wall separating the families, an all-purpose prop box, and crepe-paper rain. Film is, of course, a much more realistic medium, so the adapters here had to supply some framework or context comparable to the stage version's theatricality, and they have. In the screenplay fashioned by original co-authors Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, El Gallo brings his travelling carnival show to an isolated, probably midwestern town in the 1920s and changes the lives of those with whom he comes into contact.

The script veers radically from the stage original and, with the exception of the scenes involving the old Shakespearean actor Henry and Mortimer, his Indian cohort celebrated for his death scenes, much of the dialogue is new. Most of the poetry of the original dialogue is gone, as is most of the whimsical humor; everything is less antic, more literal and conventional.

Comically loopy, lovesick kids Matt and Luisa (the latter is described at the beginning of the stage version as "insane") are now simple, straightforward and fairly serious. And whereas in the show all the principals address the audience directly, in the film only El Gallo is permitted to do this.

While the screenplay is a laudable attempt at finding a film equivalent for an overtly artificial, presentational stage piece, much of the charm of the original was derived from its use of artifice, its poetry, and its humor. With all of those elements toned down or eliminated, we're left in the film with a superb score (beautifully adapted, arranged, and orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick), a wispy narrative, some nicely atmospheric location shooting, and a fair amount of still workable sentiment. While the film is by no means the disaster its delayed release would indicate --and the second, darker half works better than the first--I suspect that it lacks the kind of broad appeal required for success in theatrical exhibition.

British actor Jonathon Morris is a dashing and effective El Gallo, Joel Grey is wonderful as Luisa's father, and Brad Sullivan has some droll moments as Matt's dad. Barnard Hughes and Teller (of Penn and Teller) are quite amusing as Henry and Mortimer. Jean Louisa Kelly (of Mr. Holland's Opus) is an appealing Luisa, even if the role has lost its madcap aspect, but Joe McIntyre is rather wan as Matt. The singing, which appears to be live, is not always as strong as one would like. Michael Smuin is the choreographer, and the version of this PG-rated, one-hour-and 50-minute film that I watched was letterboxed.

Some additional notes: The order of one pair of songs in each act has been reversed. In place of the original song "It Depends on What You Pay" is "Abductions," now offered as an alternate for these politically-correct times that might frown upon the original song's comic list of available rapes.

"Metaphor" is set at the motion picture booth of El Gallo's carnival, and Matt and Luisa sing it while a silent film version of Romeo and Juliet is screened behind them (some new lyrics reflect this). In a nod to the stage production, El Gallo conducts "Soon It's Gonna Rain" from a tree and arranges for artificial moonlight, thunder, and rain.

As originally conceived and written, The Fantasticks defies easy movie transfer, and even rethought for the screen, there's a lingering feeling that it's a show that can't really be filmed. The 1964 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV version (featuring Ricardo Montalban, John Davidson, Susan Watson, Stanley Holloway, and Bert Lahr), while extremely truncated (it runs an hour with commercials), has better singing and, even with studio sets unlike the stage version's, retains more of the feel of the original. But if the Fantasticks film might be a questionable bet in commercial release (even Evita is doing only OK business), it's a famous title, and enough of the work's quality comes through to make it a decent cable possibility (say on TNT or A&E) and a good prospect for subsequent video release.


RANDOM NOTES
* The new Melbourne, Australia production of Chess starring Barbara Dickson that I mentioned here some weeks back proved a quick flop; it is being replaced at the Princess Theatre by a transfer of the Melbourne Theatre Company's revival of A Little Night Music.

* The House of Martin Guerre, the musical first workshopped in Canada then given a full-scale mounting last summer at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, will have another production this fall at Canadian Stage Company.

* Rumor has it that the next show at the St. James Theatre could be Melissa Errico in The Sound of Music.

* While Mary Lou Rosato continues to play the scheming Queen in the revival of Once Upon A Mattress at the Broadhurst, the creator of the role, Jane White, begins previews this week in a supporting role in Jekyll & Hyde at the Plymouth, virtually back to back with the Broadhurst.

* I hereby begin a campaign to restore Victor/Victoria's second-act opener "Louis Says" when Raquel Welch joins the show in June. No, it's not a very good number, but Raquel would look gorgeous in the Marie Antoinette wig and dress, and the number is not unlike many Welch has performed in her glitzy cabaret acts.


THEATRE CDs OF THE WEEK
The latest batch from Jay consists of one new London cast recording, that of the 1994 Donmar Warehouse production of The Threepenny Opera, and domestic issues of two London cast albums previously available on TER.

With blunt new lyrics by Jeremy Sams, the Threepenny disc offers a gritty, profane, roughly sung, but engaging performance (the production was set in the future). No, the performers don't equal those on the legendary '50s off-Broadway cast album (who could match Lotte Lenya, Beatrice Arthur, Charlotte Rae, Jo Sullivan and the others?), and I still feel that the unsuccessful 1989 Broadway Threepenny starring Sting should have been recorded, if only for leading ladies Maureen McGovern, Georgia Brown, and Kim Criswell. But the new recording is effective and captures the spirit of the piece, and the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht score remains monumental.

The previously released discs are the 1980 London revival cast recording of Oklahoma! and the cast album of the 1994 London production of Once on This Island. With the exception of John Diedrich's strong Curly, the Oklahoma! is inferior to the performance to be heard on RCA Victor's 1979 Broadway revival Oklahoma! But the London Oklahoma! does have one amazing characteristic: It was recorded live at the Palace Theatre, and may rank as the only live recording in English of a major production of a conventional book musical. RCA also has a better Island in its Broadway recording, but the London set is enjoyable and features West End regulars Clive Rowe and Shezwae Powell (the latter soon to play the Carol Woods role in the London The Goodbye Girl).


QUIZ OF THE WEEK:
Who replaced Elaine Stritch in Company on Broadway? In the West End?
Answer to last week's quiz: Millicent Martin replaced Diana Rigg in the London Follies and was thus reunited with Julia McKenzie, her Side By Side co-star.


ASK KEN
David Leong of Seattle asks:
From time to time I read about broadcasts of musicals on BBC Radio 2. Could you explain exactly what these are? Are these "edited for radio" only versions of musicals sung live in a studio? And are CDs of these performances available for us folks in the U.S.?
KM: The BBC Radio 2 series began with a studio broadcast of the otherwise unrecorded Royal National Theatre production of Sweeney Todd starring Julia McKenzie, Denis Quilley, and Adrian Lester. Thereafter, the series, presented before a live, invited audience in a studio, consisted of productions created and cast for the series. Titles have included Call Me Madam (with Tyne Daly, before her Encores! Madam), My Fair Lady, Cabaret, Mame (McKenzie in the title role), Jesus Christ Superstar, Half A Sixpence, A Little Night Music (Betty Buckley as Desiree), Bitter Sweet, Salad Days, The Dancing Years, The King and I (starring Barbara Cook), Kismet, The Music Man (starring Jim Dale), and Mandy Patinkin in both Guys and Dolls and Carousel. The two most recent broadcasts were of A Chorus Line and Follies, both starring Donna McKechnie; the latter was the first taped live at a benefit concert.
Unfortunately, with the exceptions of Salad Days and Follies, these performances have not been issued on CD or broadcast in the U.S. It's surprising that no station here has attempted to pick them up, and it's even more unfortunate that we have no comparable series in the U.S.

Send your questions to kenmanbway@aol.com