This summer, I again saw two musicals at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, Les Misérables and The Music Man. The former is my favorite musical of all time (as mentioned previously here), and the latter, as I’ve said recently, is the first musical I was exposed to and is a family favorite. I was very excited to see both of these shows, but while The Music Man delivered, I was left feeling a bit shorted at Les Mis. Presented here are some thoughts about both shows. I’ll work my way backwards since the people searching for reviews are likely to want them for the show that is actually still playing.
The Music Man
The Music Man is one of my favorite musicals simply because it’s so much fun. So many things cause me to simply grin with pleasure, from the opening scene in the train and the traveling salesman’s constant objection that Hill “doesn’t know the territory,” to the River City womenfolk’s gossip circle duo with the barbershop quartet city officials. There are so many memorable caricatures in this story, and PCPA really did a good job of nailing many of them. Particularly well done were Brad Carroll and Elizabeth Shinn as Mayor Shinn and Mrs. Shinn – Carroll’s over-the-top portrayal of River City’s Mayor had both my grandmother and me rolling. “You watch your phrase-ology, woman!”
The highlight of the show, of course, was the barbershop quartet that Harold Hill forms out of the four squabbling city board members early in the story. From their very first “sin in sincere”, the characters simply steal the show each time they’re on stage, assuming their actors have the requisite musical ability. It’s tough to do good barbershop but the four men in the roles did about as well as anyone could have hoped for – in fact, almost all of the roles were about the best I’ve seen them, from local Fresno community theatre to the traveling revival company that did the 2000 revival version of the show. From the chorus to Marian Paroo, almost everyone did an absolutely stellar and high-energy job.
Yes, almost. It almost pains me to say it, but I was not particularly impressed with Andrew Philpot’s lackadaisical portrayal of Harold Hill. He seemed to always be a beat behind (during both Trouble In River City and Seventy-Six Trombones, he literally was almost a full beat behind tempo at most points. Yikes.), it was difficult to believe he was fully invested in his month-long marching band con, and to be perfectly honest, I simply wasn’t the biggest fan of his performance voice. It’s really difficult not to compare any Harold Hill to Robert Preston, but Philpot didn’t even seem to come close to the baritone I was imagining. Maybe I’m a victim of my own expectations here, but I really kept wanting him to boom out his “You got trouble!” lines and have to really command the crowd’s attention; it seemed more like they were naturally inclined to give it to him anyway and he consequently didn’t have to work as hard at playing the Pied Piper. He did do a decent job of waltzing through River City selling the Emperor’s New Band, though; the character is written so well you’d have to have absolutely zero charisma in order to screw it up. He just wasn’t the Harold Hill I was expecting.
If you are now worried about enjoying the show, don’t. While I may have had some reservations about Philpot’s acting, my grandparents both and my mother absolutely loved the whole show. My grandma is over eighty years old and she said this was the best performance she had ever seen of The Music Man. And it was, overall, probably the best of the four PCPA performances I’ve seen. It is definitely worth your time and money when it returns to the stage at the Solvang Festival Theatre mid-August.
I unfortunately have to place PCPA’s offering of Les Mis near the lukewarm middle of the spectrum of reactions. This is one of my favorite stories, full of hope and redemption, and though it’s never a bad thing to see it performed, I honestly felt like the performers weren’t fully engaged in the story they were telling, which always dampens the enjoyment of performances for me. I had heard rave reviews from friends about the show, so maybe there were a number of extenuating circumstantial factors. The run had been going on for a looong time, the theatre was outside and was cold, general fatigue, etc. etc, who knows; regardless, the performance felt to me as though a lot of the performers were either worn out or just phoning it in. Quite unexpected for PCPA!
There were also some somewhat odd (to my oh-so-perfect theatrical eye) casting choices as well. A lot was made of Sam Zeller’s casting as Jean Valjean, but overall I wasn’t too terribly impressed with some of his acting. His singing was decent, if a bit screamy sometimes. I thought Erik Stein did a better job in The Music Man as Marcellus than as Javert here, and a few of the other main characters’ voices just rubbed me the wrong way. I felt as though both Fantine and Thenardier weren’t particularly well sung, and again here, Andrew Philpot as the treacherous inkeeper seemed more like a happy-go-lucky scoundrel than the corrupt and base villain that his character is.
Let me pause and apologize for the way I’m complaining about being given the wonderful opportunity to see musical theatre. There are a number of possibilities why I wasn’t as thrilled with this performance as one might expect. A few of them are that it really was as unappealing as I perceived it to be, that it is an exceedingly difficult musical to perform well no matter what, and that I in particular have built it up to be this grand perfect thing in my head. The fact that it wasn’t sung with British accents was actually hard to get over for me, having inundated myself with the complete symphonic recording. Erik Stein is not Philip Quast. Sam Zeller is not Colm Wilkenson. Obviously they can’t be. They have to give their own portrayal, and it’s possible that I subconsciously just want every performance of Les Mis to be the ideal cast, over and over again. It’s a very translatable story and it shouldn’t be surprising to see it translated into venues different than London stage. But again, regardless of singing potential and accents, I felt like the emotion and commitment just weren’t there.
Two shining lights in this show: the chorus and Christine Alvarez’ Eponine. The chorus was excellent in tone, timing, and feeling for each of their numbers, and I was really impressed. The same goes for Alvarez: she was always giving 100% to portraying Thenardier’s angst-wracked daughter, and it really showed. I found myself looking forward to the times she was on stage singing simply because she was both excellent at it and was a break from the other characters. She did a very good job at playing up the Eponine-Marius-Cosette love dilemma and right up to her tragic end never once gave up the emotion. Hopefully miss Alvarez will continue to act at PCPA, because they have an exceedingly good actress in her.
Regardless of my on-the-fence feelings about Les Mis, I’m glad I went. It’s always good to see and hear these sorts of stories, as with The Music Man. I think I may try to catch more shows at the Marian theatre in Santa Maria or at the very beginning of the Festival theatre runs from now on, but otherwise, I consider this a summer at the theatre well spent.