Signature’s Brilliant Les Miserables

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone that Signature Theatre’s artistic director Eric Schaeffer would find a way to restage Les Miserables and create a brilliant new experience for the musical’s legions of fans. Les Miz is more effective in Signature’s intimate black box MAX Theatre than it was when it played the Kennedy Center several years ago.

Anyone who might have questioned Schaeffer’s idea of squeezing such a heroic, popular extravaganza — with 28 actors, a 14-piece orchestra and a five-ton steel set — into a 280- seat theater, underestimated his genius and unique ability to see things differently than other directors. Schaeffer’s Les Miz, assisted by the talented staging of Karma Camp, creates an intimacy that is impossible in traditional productions. The Signature audience finds itself virtually in the middle of Victor Hugo’s dark, turbulent story of obsession, redemption and revolution.

It the 23 years it has been running, Les Miz has become one of the most performed shows in the world; nearly everyone has seen a major production of it. In the Signature configuration that runs through January 25, Schaeffer has not permitted the audience to be passive observers. By extending his stage surrounded on three sides, and keeping Mark Lanks smart lighting focused and dark, Schaeffer tightly fixes the attention onto the stage. Even though the audience is literally inches away from the actors, the audience is virtually invisible and doesn’t interfere with the production as is often a problem at Arena Stage.

In the turbulent scene where the students are dying at the barricades, the audience is virtually there, so that when the haunting anthem Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is sung, there is a feeling that we too have lost friends in the bloody battle.

This is a great production at every level from Greg Stone as the long-suffering Jean Vanjean; Tom Zemon as the relentless Javert; Tracy Lynn Olivera as Fantine; and Felicia Curry as Eponine — to the entire cast, the performances are flawless and the voices wonderful. John Kalbfleisch’s music direction and his hidden 14-piece orchestra superbly held the production together and solidly supported such familiar numbers as I Dreamed a Dream and the heart rending On My Own.

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