Les Miserables” as an intimate theatrical experience? Quelle fantaisie! The iconic tuner that essentially ushered in the musical-as-spectacle genre has been stripped of its elaborate accessories by Arlington’s Signature Theater. Gone is the computerized turntable that breezed characters through time and space. This version is entirely about Victor Hugo’s timeless epic of sacrifice and commitment and those melodic ballads that stubbornly refuse to vacate the brain. A most satisfying departure it is, too.
Director Eric Schaeffer, under the approving and curious eye of producer Cameron Mackintosh, has reconceived the show for Signature’s 280-seat black box theater in the first such deviation from the original model of Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s of the “Les Miz” production. But it’s still a mammoth undertaking for the small nonprofit troupe: It’s the largest show ever mounted by Signature, with a 28-member cast, 14-piece orchestra and 138 costumes.
The barricade is still featured, of course, but here it’s a shiny metallic pile of scrap reserved for the second act. Schaeffer generally confines the action to a mostly bare stage thrust out into the audience for full impact, with empty chairs dangling from above as a reminder of the tragedy to come.
Heading the mostly even cast are three talented “Les Miz” Broadway or touring alumni — Greg Stone as Valjean, Tom Zemon as obsessed Inspector Javert and Stephanie Waters as Cosette. The three set high standards in acting and vocals, as does Andrew Call as the lovestruck Marius. The duo of Christopher Bloch and Sherri Edelen provide the requisite comic relief as the terminally duplicitous innkeepers, especially in their infectious number “Master of the House.”
OK, so what if the show still tugs shamelessly at the heartstrings, now more blatantly than ever with the cast playing virtually in one’s lap? Few musicals deliver the payoffs as earnestly as Claude-Michel Schonberg’s memorable score, delivered to full effect by music director Jon Kalbfleisch from the original orchestrations. Every syllable of Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics is discernable from this powerful and energetic chorus.
This production is exceedingly dark. The audience is led into a house too dimly lit to read the playbill, an indicator of what’s to come from lighting designer Mark Lanks. Likewise, Kathleen Geldard’s costumes complement the show’s brooding nature.
Clever staging abounds, beginning with the official start of Valjean’s saga in scene two with the dramatic lifting of a steel and Plexiglas platform upon which the prologue had just been performed. This rising stage in Walt Spangler’s set is also used effectively in an intriguing new approach to Javert’s death scene.
Other scenes are introduced with subtle gestures that spur the imagination. Especially effective is Valjean’s escape with the injured Marius into the Paris sewer, a pivotal chase scene cued by a wordless glance at a lighted grate below.
The Signature experiment works on many levels. Bringing the production down to an intimate scale assuredly makes the characters more accessible, even when crooning those familiar larger-than-life numbers. The touching “Drink to Me” is a good example.
Schaeffer’s dark but delightful approach might just pave the way for the show’s release to other nonprofit theaters, which would surely love to have it. Whether they go for broke like the Signature folks will remain to be seen. This crew even had the temerity to replace the show’s ubiquitous waif mascot with its own stylized drawing. Mon Dieu!