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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

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A Stunning Les Misérables at the Marcus Center

By Steve Spice

Les Misérables is a universally admired staple of musical theater, and with this production it is easy to see why. Considering its popularity, it seems disrespectful to imply that it's not above reproach. But the politics have never been too clear. Much is made of the "manning of the barricades" motif, but the revolutionary theme, while seeming current in our perplexing times, has always appeared somewhat oddly ungrounded in this particular venue.

Between the beggarly poor and the student revolutionaries, the good characters in the lengthy Victor Hugo novel have always been the poignantly virtuous. Jean Valjean and his nemesis, Inspector Javert, were stunningly vocalized by Ron Sharpe and Andrew Varela during last week's Broadway at the Marcus Center performance. In the show's current touring production, their interactions coincide less with the drama and more to provide space for a multitude of subplots and colorful characters, leaving the impression that the show needs more focus to add up to the sum of its parts.

However, this is not necessarily a negative. Familiarity breeds affection. There are many interesting vignettes and richly framed characters well known to audiences. The story of Valjean's adopted orphaned daughter, Cosette, and her romance with young revolutionary student Marius (charmingly sung by Jenny Latimer and somewhat tentatively by Justin Scott Brown) adds needed romance.

This 25th anniversary production, superbly revitalized and staged by Cameron Mackintosh, lacks little in visceral excitement and gives the famous work a new look, adding raw gusto to the familiar score. Scene changes are rapid and stunningly realistic. Stage dynamics occur with rapid-fire urgency. Laurence Connor and James Powell's direction with Michael Ashcroft's musical staging would have done James Cameron proud. The din of battle is brilliantly lighted and barricades are splattered with bloody corpses. When Javert finally jumps into the Seine, the stage splits uncannily, allowing him to sing his final cry beneath the waves.

Much to Love in Boulevard's 'Village Wooing'

By Russ Bickerstaff

The Boulevard Theatre tackles a pair of short works in Two 2 Go, a program featuring scripts by George Bernard Shaw and Thornton Wilder. The two shorts are placed in the larger context of a remedial English class for adults (a result of Gov. Scott Walker's educational budget cuts). It's a fun premise that helps to ground the two pieces in a larger framework, though its thematic volume bleeds uncomfortably into the Wilder piece.

The first short is Shaw's A Village Wooing. Worth the price of admission by itself, the Shaw piece is the most compelling and sophisticated romance to hit the stage all season—possibly in the last couple of years. Liv Mueller plays a woman on a cruise ship vacation who incessantly bothers a man sitting next to her. The man, played by Michael Keiley, is a travel writer who would rather not be bothered. Mueller and Keiley make the most of the intimate space by embellishing their characters with subtle details. It can be very difficult to make an onstage romance convincing in such a limited amount of time, but Keiley and Mueller not only make it look easy, they also make it look fun.

The second short, Wilder's Pullman Car Hiawatha, is a poetic tale of a journey across the heart of the country. Pullman Car has a certain rhythm and soul to it, drawing together a six-person ensemble through many, many characters making a simple journey. The Boulevard ensemble doesn't quite bring together the disparate cast of characters with the kind of grace achieved in Wilder's script. It is not without its moments, but it seems like an afterthought compared to the Shaw work that opens the show.

The Boulevard Theatre's Two 2 Go runs through May 29. To reserve tickets, call 414-744-5757.

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