Balagan Theatre to stage an intimate ‘Les Miz’
Following the success of the movie musical “Les Miserables,” a few Seattle-area theaters are mounting the show, starting with an “intimate” version at Balagan Theatre.
Seattle Times theater critic
By Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer. A Balagan Theatre production, through Sept. 28, Erickson Theater, 1524 Harvard Ave, Seattle; $30-$35 (206-718-3245 or www.balagantheatre.org).
“It’s sort of the year of ‘Les Miz,’ ” says Broadway and Seattle theater artist Louis Hobson. C’est vrai!
The star-studded 2012 film version of the international musical smash “Les Miserables” is now in wide DVD and cable-TV distribution, after raking in more than $400 million in theaters.
A Broadway revival of this same pop opera by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer, adapted from the classic Victor Hugo novel of Paris romance and revolution, starts next March. (Earlier runs already racked up over 6,600 performances on the Great White Way).
The Fox network plans a soap-opera-style prime-time drama based on “Les Miserables,” with “a modern twist,” according to a recent Time Magazine report.
Le deluge continues, closer to home. The Village Theatre is tackling its own version of the “Les Miz” blockbuster, which opens in November in Issaquah and in January in Everett. But first Tacoma Musical Playhouse mounts the show in October.
And a more offbeat spin on “Les Miz” by Balagan Theatre opens this weekend in Seattle. It stars Balagan artistic director Hobson as Jean Valjean — the Hugo protagonist who steals a loaf of bread and spends 19 years in prison at hard labor. Later he adopts a false identity, prospers and gets reluctantly embroiled in the 1832 Paris Uprising of les miserables, the desperately poor. While singing a lot.
It is unusual, Hobson agrees, for a boyish-looking actor in his 30s to portray Valjean, who ages into his frail mid-60s during the saga.
But he believes the more inventive aspect of the show is the “intimate and immersive” staging that he and Jake Groshong (the show’s director and Balagan’s executive director) have conceived, within the confines of the smallish Erickson Theater on Capitol Hill.
“Initially we started talking about doing an in-concert version,” says Hobson. “Put the cast on platforms and place the audience around them. And then we needed to put the musicians somewhere.”
They decided to open the doors to the scene storage room and station the orchestra there, and mount a full production where the actors “enter and exit through the audience. We put entrances and exits all over the place. It’s like the audience is there on the barricades with the actors, inside the space of the story.”
Unlike some of the shows in the trendy “immersion” theater movement, patrons will not be called on to directly participate in the show., notes Hobson. “That sort of theater bothers me. I think it’s asking too much of people watching unless they’re really prepared for it.
“But you won’t feel removed from the action in this. It’s so easy now with TV and film for audiences in a more traditional setup to sort of check out, and just be observers. The power of theater is there can be a kind of conversation between the audience and the stage, with everything happening right there with you.”
Hobson, who had featured roles in such Broadway musicals as “Next to Normal” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” before returning to the Seattle area, says he was reluctant at first to play Jean Valjean. “It wasn’t a role I’d been considering, because I thought I was too young-looking for it. Maybe five years from now I could do it.
“But then I came close to getting the part in the new Broadway revival, and after studying it I was surprised how much I identify with the character. As a parent myself, I related to how much he gives up for Cosette, the little girl he takes in.”
To make Hobson more credible as Valjean ages, without resorting to very elaborate makeup, Balagan cast the other main roles young also.
Shaye Hodgins, a local-high school student, plays the teenage Cosette. Opera-trained Brian Giebler, and Tessa Archer, both in their early 20s, respectively depict Cosette’s revolutionary suitor Marius and the tragic prostitute Fontine. Even Valjean’s nemesis, Inspector Javert, will look more youthful than usual, as performed by Seattle Opera baritone Michael Dunlap.
Showcasing the area’s fresh younger talent in the semiprofessional production (only three out of the 30-plus actors are Actors Equity union members) is one of Balagan’s goals, points out Hobson, who also works as a casting director for the 5th Avenue Theatre.
The Puyallup native has lots of jobs — directing the next Balagan musical (“Carrie”), acting in films (he’s in the new Lynn Shelton movie, “Laggies”), and of course rising to the challenge of Valjean — “one of the most demanding roles, ever. Every possible note a man could sing, you sing. You sing at the bottom of the range, at the top of your range, and constantly.”
Given that he’s not the only Valjean in the vicinity, Hobson says he hopes “people come to see our show, and get excited about seeing the ones at the Village and Tacoma Musical Playhouse too. It’s exciting to watch different interpretations, and every theater will have their own angle on ‘Les Miz.’ ”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, was corrected Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. The wrong date for the Issaquah run of the Village Theatre production of “Les Miserables” was given in a previous version of this story.