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26 Jan 2014

Do You Hear the People Sing? Palm Canyon's Flawed 'Les Mis' Is Worth Seeing for Raymond B. Johnson's Amazing Performance

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Morgana Corelli, Tom Warrick, Raymond B. Johnson and Ava Tethal in Palm Canyon Theatre's Les Miserables. Morgana Corelli, Tom Warrick, Raymond B. Johnson and Ava Tethal in Palm Canyon Theatre's Les Miserables. Courtesy of Palm Canyon Theatre/Paul Hayashi

Les Miserables is now the world’s longest-running musical, having been seen by an estimated 65 million people in 42 countries.

Given the show’s many years of stage success and the recent hit movie, audiences have high expectations when they go to see Les Miserables—and on many levels, the Palm Canyon Theatre’s current production succeeds. However, the show is far from seamless.

By now, almost everyone knows the basic plot. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel set among the poor in 19th-century France, it chronicles the determination of Inspector Javert to capture escaped convict Jean Valjean, who was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family. Released after 20 years of hard labor, Valjean stops by a bishop’s house. Though treated with kindness, Valjean steals silverware and flees. When he’s apprehended and brought back to answer for his crime, the bishop says the silverware was a gift. The price for Valjean’s freedom: The expectation that he will treat others with kindness. He eventually develops a relationship with Fantine, a starving prostitute desperate to save her illegitimate daughter, Cosette. As Fantine dies, Valjean promises to raise Cosette as his own. Later, Cosette falls in love with a militant student, Marius; finally, Valjean and Javert have their final confrontation on the banks of the Seine.

At the top of the list of Palm Canyon’s successes is Raymond B. Johnson’s performance as Jean Valjean: He is simply flawless. He has the physical presence and the acting chops for the part, and his voice is exquisite. Anyone who knows the score waits for the moment when night falls on a battle, and Valjean sings the spine-tingling “Bring Him Home.” Johnson delivers: You can hear a pin drop as he hits the final high note; his paternal love for Marius feels authentic. Unfortunately, in the opening scenes, he is burdened by an ill-fitting wig, which covers his face far too often.

Valley favorite Mark Almy, as Inspector Javert, is also impressive. Thanks to his powerful pipes, he handles the difficult score with ease; his Javert is cold, stern and relentless. However, when folding the hands of a young boy killed in battle, you can see the softening of the inspector’s heart all over Almy’s face.

Se Layne Tethal (who is not credited in the program) is not bad as Fantine, even though she’s not age-appropriate for the part. She has a pretty voice, but her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” doesn’t hit the viewer in the gut; sneaking in a breath on the rising scale on the word “shame” diminishes the song. (Granted, playing Fantine these days is a thankless task, seeing as it would be nearly impossible to top Anne Hathaway’s now-famous performance in the film.)

Layne’s daughter Ava Tethal is touching as little Cosette, and her son Wyatt is adorable Gavroche. Husband Rodney Tethal ably directs, making this truly a family affair.

Jamie Leigh Walker is perfectly cast as Cosette. Her soaring soprano meshes well with the equally talented Shafik Wahhab, who plays Marius. Together, they make the young couple’s love totally believable.

Alisha Bates stands out as the tragic Eponine; unfortunately, her gut-wrenching “On My Own” was marred by a brief sharp note and too much noise behind the drop as fellow cast members stacked chairs to create the battle barricade. Also worth mentioning are Charles Harvey as The Bishop of Digne and Nicholas Sloan as Enjolras.

As for those seams: The raucous “Master of the House,” a number which normally stops the show, was lackluster. That was, in large part, because Tom Warrick (Thenardier) did not know his lyrics. Morgana Corelli (Madame Thenardier) also dropped a line or two, but Warrick was either having a really bad night, or needs another week of rehearsal. The pair have the appropriate buffoonish look (great costuming and makeup), and there are glimpses of good comic timing, but if the opening-night show was any indication, they may need to go over their songs. The same problem occurs when they reappear in the wedding scene near the end of the show.

Other issues include the overuse of onstage smoke during the battle scenes and Javert’s suicide. Several audience members were coughing and waving programs in front of their faces to clear the air—and creating a mood onstage is not more important than the safety and comfort of the audience. There were also occasional sound and microphone issues, though they were not as noticeable as in previous Palm Canyon shows. The volume level of cast members’ microphones should be consistent, but that was not the case here; some performers could be heard clearly, while others could not. Some ensemble members also need a bit of work on their diction.

The choice to use a prerecorded background track rather than live musicians in an intimate theater like the Palm Canyon is the only way to go. The recorded music worked well for the most part, though there was a glitch at the top of Act 2. The chorus could use a bit more direction during the crowd scenes—at times, they seemed to be just standing there waiting for their cue to sing.

With a few exceptions, these problems are relative nitpicks. Kudos go to musical director Charles Britt Endsley; costumers Se Layne and Jennifer Stowe; and lighting/sound director J.W. Layne. The set, also designed by J.W. Layne, is superb.

If you’re in the mood for a moving, sweeping historical epic, the Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Les Miserables is not a bad choice. The music is great, and most of the cast is strong; in fact, it’s worth going just to see Raymond B. Johnson’s performance. Let’s just hope the Thenardiers learn their songs, and the powers that be cut back on the smoke.

Les Miserables is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $32, or $10 for students. The running time is three hours, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

1 comment

  • Comment Link jkpc Sunday, 26 January 2014 21:39 posted by jkpc

    We also thought Raymond B. Johnson was terrific and overall we enjoyed the production on this Sunday matinee and the wide range of talent showcased on the small stage.
    There were some very unnerving sound issues with back-feed from mikes and the worst was during one of Mr. Johnson's powerful solos. He was very professional in continuing to sing flawlessly after being assaulted by the system screeching & the failure of his microphone. It was difficult to totally engage in the show wondering when the next sound malfunction was going to occur and if our eardrums would survive.
    Also, comically, it was noted that Mr. Johnson deserved a special award for dragging and lugging the hefty Mr. Wahhab around the set.
    Ava & Wyatt Tethel are talented and delightful to watch.
    Still, all in all, it was a most enjoyable production.

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