A little bit of ‘theater magic’ with ‘Les Mis’
July 5, 2013
The Broadway musical might be as big an entertainment form as there is: huge emotions and even bigger voices, spectacular production techniques. It's no wonder at all that the few genuine stars of current Broadway are oversized personalities whose presence can be felt at the back of a several-thousand-seat theater.
And on Broadway, there is probably nothing bigger than "Les Misérables," which is an epic in all its meanings. The story spans the years of early 19th century France and encompasses love, law, revolution and crime. Beyond the plot, the musical "Les Mis" passionately embraces an examination of the human psyche, the quests for revenge and redemption. On top of that, there are the songs, whose very titles — "I Dreamed a Dream," "On My Own," "Do You Hear the People Sing?" — demand the kind of grand expression that seems out of place anywhere other than a Broadway stage.
So how does all this bigness fit at Theatre Aspen, which is known for the intimacy of its venue, a tent in a park that seats just 189? Amazingly well. Stage people love to use the phrase "theater magic," and the current production of "Les Misérables," which opened last week and has performances through Aug. 17, aptly demonstrates why. Looking at the empty stage after Tuesday night's performance, wondering how director Mark Martino and set and lighting designer Paul Black managed to fit what I had just seen — including a battle scene featuring 17 actors — onto that small space, I was convinced that magic played some part in it. Along with any other-worldly component, there were some factors that were easier to explain: the fact that Theatre Aspen, mostly finished with chores like reconstructing its facility and surrounding grounds, is putting its ambition toward artistic pursuits; the familiarity that Martino, who has directed here multiple times, brings to Theatre Aspen's space; the apparent overall health of the organization, now in its sixth season under artistic director Paige Price, is in apparent excellent shape.
Obviously, the cast is crucial to the success of any production. But here the players are really on the spot. When you shoot this big with your design, the voices need to fill that vision. This cast had no problem. Mike Eldred was strong as the redeemed thief Jean Valjean; other standout performances were given by Daniel Berryman as the student revolutionary Marius; Aloysius Gigl, looking appropriately villainous as the relentless and narrow-minded Inspector Javert; and Theatre Aspen veteran Beth Malone as the doomed peasant woman Fantine. Also excellent were two local performers in featured roles: Nikki Boxer as the devious innkeeper Madame Thérnadier, and Franz Alderfer in the ensemble.
The question might not be whether a compact venue like Theatre Aspen's can hold a production the size of "Les Misérables," but whether this is the ideal way to stage the musical. "Les Mis" tends to be gargantuan; if one were looking for the epitome of the oversized musical, this would be it. But a small theater adds some measure of intimacy to the spectacle; at Theatre Aspen, the audience doesn't just hear Valjean's booming voice but sees the more detailed expressions of compassion, morality and dignity that could be lost in a larger space.