The never-ending misery of Les Misérables

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ABOVE: The ensemble performs “One Day More” from the touring production of Les Misérables running at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre through July 23 as part of the BroadwaySF season. BELOW: Christine Heesun Hwang is an excellent Éponine. Photos byMatthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

When the “new-and-improved” version of Les Misérables came through San Francisco 11 years ago in celebration of the never-ending musical’s 25th anniversary, the big news was that this thoroughly re-staged version had banished the famous turntable that kept the epic’s action spinning and, most famously, the barricade barricading. That version of the tour is back at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, and everything I said about that production then (read my review here) still stands. Happily, the highly annoying projections have been somewhat minimized, although the lighting in general seems so dim it’s like they’re trying to disguise any wear and tear on what is undoubtedly a worn and torn touring production. The version we saw in 2012 felt so much like a video game it was surprising the Playbill didn’t come with a joystick to help guide Jean Valjean through the sewers of Paris. This one feels slightly less so, but the projections are so anodyne they may as well not even be there.

I first saw Les Misérables in London in the fall of 1986. I had fallen in love with the two-cassette cast album, and from my seat in the Palace Theatre way (waaaaayyy) up in what the British call the “angels” seats (because you’re so close to heaven), the show I saw left me cold. I was at such a high altitude that I could see what was happening in front of and behind the barricade and could watch costume changes (Look! Fantine is changing her wig!) and other stage business that was best left unseen. A few months later, I splurged for an orchestra seat and liked the show better but still not as much as I liked simply listening to the score. Then, in 1989, I saw the touring production that spent many months at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. I was in the second row, and it was Easter Sunday. It was like seeing an entirely different show. I loved it and then proceeded to see it at least five more times across the next two decades.

The tour I saw in 2012 and the current tour have convinced me that my time with Les Miz has come to an end. I’m back to feeling like I’m in the angels seeing something that is, essentially, empty spectacle that no amount of flash and volume can mask. The actors don’t act so much as indicate, and every song, from “I Dreamed a Dream” to “On My Own” to “Bring Him Home” is sung so forcefully and with the expectation of blowing the audience’s collective mind that there’s no room for the song to actually live and breathe. It’s like Broadway’s greatest hits of the ’80s as performed on – take your pick – “American Idol,” “The Voice” or “America’s Got Talent.” The acting makes the show feel even more like an opera because it’s all show-offy singing and cardboard characters.

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Producer Cameron Mackintosh keeps the Misérables machine running, even if it’s probably best to let it rest so that fans can actually start to miss it before it comes back yet again. The show’s press release claims the 1985 musical has been seen by more than 130 million people worldwide in 53 countries and 22 languages. The original Broadway production ran for 16 years and there have already been two revivals: in 2006, only three years after the original closed, and in 2014.

Mackintosh also likes to celebrate the show’s anniversaries with lavish concerts that spawn TV specials and albums. He did that for the 10th and the 25th, and while the London production was temporarily moved out of its theater to make way for renovations, Mackintosh kept the show going in a concert version that kept getting extended (and was eventually televised). For these concerts, multiple old cast members show up, as do choirs and every stringed instrument in England. It’s somewhat ironic that as the touring show gets smaller, the concert productions just get insanely huge. Perhaps he’ll broadcast from space for the upcoming 40th anniversary. Or maybe craft an entirely, cost-saving AI company. Seriously, the Les Miz holographic experience can’t be far away.

It’s also ironic that the musical misery that pours forth from the show makes audiences so happy. For three hours, the audience applauds its way through the abuse of sex workers, abuse of children, murder of children, abuse of prisoners, corrupt policing, suicide, theft, psychotic vengeance, poverty, confusing (ultimately deadly) political ideology and performances that are all costumes and vocal chords rather than living, breathing humans. Side note: there’s an interesting lyric change in the current production when Théndardier is looting his way through “Beggar at the Feast.” The original lyric was: “Here comes a prince. There goes a Jew. This one’s a queer. But what can you do?” The new lyric replaces that last line with “I might try it, too.”

Through all the changes to the production, I try to remember what made me love Les Misérables more than 30 years ago, and I still get pangs of that affection in the big, flag-waving numbers “One Day More” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and in the finale when we hear the lyric, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” I understand the changes that have been made to make producing the show less expensive – I imagine we’ll even get a turntable-free production of Hamilton at some point. But I don’t need to experience Les Miz again until it is seriously revived in a whole new production. Maybe in 20 years or so when I’m in my 70s and some hotshot director has a new vision to crack open the show for a new generation. Undoubtedly, the ever-youthful Mackintosh will still be around to make sure that version runs for at least another half century.

Les Misérables continues through July 23 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market St., San Francisco, as part of the BroadwaySF season. Running time: about 3 hours (including one intermission). Tickets are $60.50-$225.50 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

A spoonful of new songs makes Mary Poppins go down

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Madeline Trumble (center, blue dress) as Mary Poppins, Con O’Shea (center, gold vest) as Bert and Tonya Thompson (center, orange dress) as Miss Corry perform Matthew Bourne’s rousing choreography of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in the touring proudction of Mary Poppins at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. Below: Trumble and O’Shea step in time. Photos by Jeremy Daniel

Some are Shakespeare purists. Or Chekhov purists. Or Star Wars purists. Their simple message is: don’t mess with the original. I happen to be a Mary Poppins purist. Not the original P.L. Travers books – I found them harsh and far from enchanting. No, I’m a purist when it comes to the 1964 Disney film that boasted two remarkable things (and countless other simply wonderful things): the screen debut of a perfectly cast Julie Andrews in the title role and a thoroughly charming original score by brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. Andrews and the Shermans all walked away with Academy Awards and, several years later when, at 4 years old, I saw a re-release of the film in my first time out at a movie theater, it also won my lifelong devotion.

All of that personal preamble is to say that I approached the Disney/Cameron Mackintosh stage adaptation with cautious enthusiasm. The show opened in London in 2004 before heading to Broadway in 2006, where it closed last March.

I saw the show on Broadway and pretty much hated it. The lavish sets and costumes by Bob Crowley were jaw dropping, and some of co-director Matthew Bourne’s choreography was fun. But what ruined it all for me was the new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and the damage done to some of the original Sherman songs from the movie. Another big turn off was the bizarre direction of the actress playing Mary Poppins to play the magical governess as if she were a freaky android with overly perfect elocution and a personality devoid of charm and warmth. Could director Richard Eyre be to blame? I had to think so.

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At long last, the touring Mary Poppins has arrived in San Francisco (in a reversal of the usual pattern, the show made it to San Jose long before San Francisco) as part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre.

Somewhat simplified and stripped down for the tour, this production (directed by Anthony Lyn) is actually more rewarding than the Broadway version. It’s still a hodge-podge mess of the movie and Travers and pop psychology and strained efforts to make something unique out of something that was already unique. But somehow there’s some breathing room here for some charm to squeak through.

At the helm of the charm brigade is Berkeley native Madeline Trumble as Mary Poppins. This Mary actually has a twinkle in her eye and some warmth in her smile. There’s still something arch in the way the character is directed, but Trumble, who sings with the lilt of an operetta star, conveys a sense of loving mischief, which is useful in the role.

Trumble gets some assistance in the charm department from Con O’Shea-Creal as Bert, the sidewalk artist/chimney sweep. His dance moves in the “Step in Time” number (mostly intact from the movie) steal the show, and his much-heralded tap dance around the proscenium frame really is breathtaking.

The best moments in the show involve the original songs. The aforementioned “Step in Time” is a showcase for Bourne’s choreography, as is “Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which is by far the most successful adaptation of an original song. The spirit of the original is still there and used as a foundation, while a song like “Spoonful of Sugar,” now set in a ridiculously destroyed kitchen, just flounders.

Among the cut songs are “Sister Suffragette, “The Life I Lead,” “Stay Awake,” “I Love to Laugh” and “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.” In their place are mostly dull songs for Mrs. Banks (“Being Mrs. Banks”), Mr. Banks (“Precision and Order,” which is not nearly as crisp as “The Life I Lead”) and Mr. Banks’ childhood nanny, Miss Andrew (“Brimstone and Treacle”), as well as a loathsome nursery nightmare (“Playing the Game”) and a too-vague stab at inspiration that’s nowhere near as eloquent or inspiring as “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” (“Anything Can Happen”). The new material is respectful and, on paper, it makes sense. But the songs just don’t have the panache or music hall enthusiasm of the Sherman originals, especially when they sit side by side.

With my initial horror at the new songs/adapted songs behind me, I was able to watch the touring production with bemusement. I don’t like the new material any better, but I did admire the touring cast and the enthusiasm with which they approach the material. Broadway seemed cold and machine-like, but the tour has some life in it, and the opening-night audience, which was full of families with children, seemed delighted. Perhaps the young people who experience Mary Poppins first through the stage version will look at the movie and only see what’s missing or dated, whereas I will always see the movie as the purest form – sorry, Mrs. Travers – of the Poppins magic.

Mary Poppins continues through May 12 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $35. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Still Misérables after all these years

Les Misérables by Cameron Mackintosh
Peter Lockyer as Jean Valjean sings “Bring Him Home” in the 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables at the Orpheum Theatre. Below: The Les Miz company ends Act 1 with a rousing “One Day More.” Photos by Deen Van Meer

The 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season is annoying and gratifying, pretty much in equal measure.

You have to give credit to super producer Cameron Mackintosh for even attempting something new with such a tried-and-true money maker as Les Miz. He hired new directors (Laurence Connor and James Powell) and a raft of new designers, including set designer Matt Kinley (whose credit includes “inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo) and lighting designer Paule Constable. They 86-ed the turntable, such a memorable (and thematically important) element of the original Royal Shakespeare Company production adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Napier, and added that now inescapable 21st-century plague, projections.

This musical war horse is certainly refreshed if not necessarily strengthened. The show was special when it opened in London in 1985 (the original French production was all the way back in 1980) because it was an epic story enlivened by a pop score with operatic ambitions. The fluid, cinematic staging allowed a large chunk of Hugo’s massive novel to live on stage, and the Schönberg-Kretzmer score, especially its plaintive ballads and rousing anthems, would have captured an audience’s attention even on a bare stage with little to no flag waving.

As part of the British invasion, which also included Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miz helped usher in an era of deadly serious musical theater that was lushly produced and adored by audiences. More than 25 years later, these musicals tend to feel dated by their extravagance, hobbled by their bloat. And that’s certainly true of this revised production, even though it’s scaled down from the original. There’s a lot of flash and speed and movement, with the heart only occasionally visible thanks to some strong performances and some moving musical moments.

Les Misérables by Cameron Mackintosh, opening night November 28 2010, Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Dr., Millburn New Jersey

But first a word on those projections. When the back wall of the stage is dark and stormy and full of ominous images that look like woodcuts damaged by fire, all is well. But several times the projections sink to computer animation, and the stage is suddenly Les Miz: The Video Game. It happens when hero Jean Valjean, employing his super human strength rescues a man from a runaway cart (the animation happens during the “runaway” part). It happens again during the stirring Act 1 closer “One More Day.” When the revolutionary zealots begin marching, the street behind them begins to move, making them look like cartoon characters and diminishing an otherwise stirring number. For me, though, the worst video projection was a tour through the Paris sewers as Jean Valjean attempts to rescue an injured Marius. The two men stumble through multiple projections as if the designers were anxious to ensure the audience that yes, theater can be 3-D, too! As if it weren’t already in three dimensions.

And though the famous barricade isn’t nearly as impressive as it used to be (and the battle seems especially wan with a few popping light bulbs making the whole barricades pile look like a theme park ride), it’s fine. The inability to see what’s happening on the other side of the barricades means we lose a poignant moment or two, but there are other things going on to compensate.

But I really did miss the turntable. There is a song in the show, after all, called “Turning,” and the whole notion of everything coming around again and again is central to Hugo’s theme, so the turntable really was more than just a slick way to keep the action spinning. I especially missed it during “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which is performed with neither chairs nor tables, empty or otherwise (it is, instead, performed with candles). It’s funny to miss part of the set, but there you go. The new set designs, heavy on shabby shutters on a grand scale, are sufficient, but now Les Miz feels more like a regional production and less like a Broadway legend.

By far the worst “improvement” happens during the death of Javert. Here you have a fantastic actor – Andrew Varela, whose earlier solo, “Stars,” nearly stopped the show – giving another great turn on “Soliloquy.” And when he makes a decisive move, in rush the special effects, which involve projections (naturally) and a flying rig that is so unnecessary it’s comical. Suddenly Les Miz becomes Wicked in miniature. The truth is that Varela needs no effects other than a spotlight and his wonderful voice.

The performances are generally, fine though the women tend to have a more contemporary vocal bent than the men (which is not always great in a period piece). Peter Lockyer is a powerful Jean Valjean, though as the show progresses, his age makeup lends a Kabuki air to the performance. Timothy Gulan is an iffy Thenardier who is constantly upstaged by his much funnier wife played by Shawna M. Hamic. The young lovers Marius (Max Quinlan) and Cosette (Lauren Wiley) have very pretty voices but lack stage presence, but then again, their characters don’t really give them much to work with. Briana Carlson-Goodman’s Eponine seems like she’s visiting from a shiny, happy sitcom and had the makeup department smudge up her face to help her get into character as a Parisian street urchin circa the 1830s, and it doesn’t quite work

Even with all the annoyances, there’s no denying that Les Miz can still pack a wallop. When those big voices (played at ear-splitting volume at the Orpheum) join together to sing songs like “At the End of the Day” or “One Day More” it’s great musical theater storytelling. Beyond the bells and whistles is a story of redemption and kindness and love in a truly ugly world, and that registers, with the turntable or without.

Les Misérables continues through Aug. 26 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$150. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Thar she blows! Matthew Martin dresses up `Moby Dick!’

[PLEASE NOTE: Moby Dick! The Musical has been extended through Oct. 19]

You can bet that Matthew Martin has the greatest gams on the Pequod.

Martin, the San Francisco drag superstar, is having a whale of a time heading the cast of Theatre Rhinoceros’ season-opening Moby Dick! The Musical.

He’s playing Headmistress Hymen, whose school, St. Godley’s Academy for Young Ladies, is about to go bankrupt. So, in true musical theater fashion (think Nunsense), she and her girls stage a musical version of Melville’s Moby Dick to raise some much needed funds. Headmistress, of course, takes on the role of Capt. Ahab.

“I’m playing Headmistress Hymen as a blend of Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Glynis Johns,” Martin says over coffee and cigarettes in the Hayes Valley Victorian he shares with roommate (and co-star) Mike Finn. “And as Ahab, I’m drawing on Gregory Peck in the John Houston movie.”

Lest you think Martin is exercising his heavy-duty thespian muscles, he emphasizes that Moby Dick! is a comedy in the largest sense.

“It’s Shtickville, U.S.A.,” he says. “There are spit takes and everything. I like it. I’m not above a lowbrow joke. It’s one dick joke after another.”

Created in the early ’90s by Brits Robert Longden, Martin Koch and Hereward Kaye, Moby Dick! was noticed by super-producer Cameron Mackintosh, who booked it into a new studio theater in Oxford, where it became a cult hit. Against the advice of his colleagues, Mackintosh transferred the show to London, where the whale went belly up.

At Theatre Rhino, Moby Dick! is back in a more intimate space and directed by Rhino artistic director John Fisher, who has worked with Martin before in his plays Special Forces and Schonberg among them.

“Working with John is a mutual admiration society,” Martin says. “He can be an Otto Preminger of sorts. He won’t let you go on stage if you’re not ready. His tremendous love and care of a project can make him tough.”

As Headmistress/Ahab, Martin is in a demanding role – he says he doesn’t remember having to sing this much for a role – but he’s been in demanding roles before. He’s famous for taking the Bette Davis roles in stage adaptations of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and All About Eve.

In fact, he and fellow drag diva Varla Jean Merman (across the street from Rhino starring in Jungle Red at the Victoria) have plans to make a movie version of the drag Baby Jane.

Martin’s glamorous life as a grand dame of the Bay Area stage is balanced by his day job in a law firm – he’s a “legal sexy-tary,” as he puts it – a job he’s had for more than a decade and allows him the flexibility to pursue his show-biz career.

In recent years he (with roommate Finn) adapted the horrible Joan Crawford B-movie horror flick Trog for the stage. The show was so successful here they took it on the road to Los Angeles.

Last year, Martin and Finn opened up their home and turned the front parlor into a mini-theater (seating 70) and performed live episodes of “The Golden Girls” with an all-male cast. Martin played the lusty Blanche Devereaux.

He also went on tour with several Trannyshack performers including Heklina – Martin describes it as akin to a USO Tour – with stops as disparate as London and Santa Fe.

“In Santa Fe we performed at a lesbian pizza parlor,” he recalls. “They were so hungry for entertainment! The dressing room was upstairs over the pizza ovens, and the partition for the dressing room was made of Saran Wrap.”

Touring through Martin’s home – a shadowy Victorian wonderland of dark, rich colors crowded with antiques – the performer mentions some of his triumphs on stage at the Castro Theatre where he impersonated some great Hollywood ladies, who just happened to be in attendance, Jane Russell and Ann Miller among them. Most recently he performed as Mitzi Gaynor for Mitzi Gaynor. She autographed an album cover for him: “To Matthew – You’re the best!” In the photo of the two together, the resemblance is startling.

The world of drag, Martin says, has become a whole lot less shocking than it used to be and become much more a part of the mainstream.

“I’ve never really considered what I do to be doing drag,” Martin says. “To me it’s about playing a character, whether it’s Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland or whoever. It’s not about genitalia, it’s about character.”

“Moby Dick! The Musical” continues an extended run through Oct. 19 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$40. Call 415-861-5079 or visit

Here’s Martin during his Mitzi Gaynor gig at the Castro Theatre earlier this year:

`Brokeback’ sings, `Fair Lady’ redux, `Nine’ lives on

So much information to digest.

First comes news that Annie Proulx’s extraordinary short story, “Brokeback Mountain,” which was turned into a less extraordinary but admirable film, is now becoming an opera. New York City Opera has commissioned American composer Charles Wuorinen to create an opera based on “Brokeback” for the 2013 spring season. I, for one, can’t wait to hear Ennis’ beleaguered wife sing that sure-to-be-hit song “Jack Nasty.”

Why, oh, why? Columbia Pictures and CBS Films are going to remake My Fair Lady with producers Duncan Kenworthy and Cameron Mackintosh.

Yes, the movie is going to be a musical and will feature the famed Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe score, but the gimmick this time out will be on-location shooting rather than in studio sound stages. They also say the film will will incorporate more of George Bernard Shaw’s original play, Pygmalion.

There have been rumors that Keira Knightley has been approached about playing Eliza Doolittle. That’s all well and good (if she can’t sing, Marni Nixon, who dubbed Audrey Hepburn in the movie, is still available, bless her heart), but can we please cast Julie Andrews as Mrs. Higgins?

Rob Marshall’s movie musical follow-up to Chicago (Memoirs of a Geisha doesn’t count because it wasn’t a musical) is going to be Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s Nine, and Daniel Day-Lewis has been confirmed to star as Italian film director Guido Contini. Day-Lewis replaces Javier Bardem, who had to drop out because he refused to get rid of that terrifying bowl cut from No Country for Old Men (kidding — he dropped out because he’s exhausted). Also in the cast, playing the women in Guido’s life are Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman and Judi Dench.