Saturday, December 10, 2011

Les Miserables Speaks the Grief That Can't be Spoken

To say I had high expectations for the longest-running musical of all time would be an understatement, and those expectations were met and surpassed. On December 6th at 7:30, I went to see Cameron MacKintosh's version of Les Miserables at the Orpheum Theatre. Directed by James Powell and Laurence Connor, this musical based on Victor Hugo's book of the same title revolving around the French Revolution was everything I expected and more.

Jean Valjean was played by J. Mark McVey, winner of the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Actor. This title is well deserved. His voice and acting were brimming with emotion and power. Juliana Simone's performance of young Cosette was heartfelt. Her clear, tear-jerking voice was strong for a very young girl, perfect for the role. However, Jenny Latimer, playing older Cosette, seemed far less fitting. She overused vibrato and was less believable than her younger counterpart. I also found Max Quinlin's Marius to be insincere, so the love at first sight relationship between Marius and Cosette was a low point in the musical; forced, cheesy, and unconvincing. Quinlin did impress me singing "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" with the utmost grief, but the portrayal of his relationship with Cosette didn't improve. Chasten Harmon as Eponine, on the other hand, gave a stunning performance. Her voice stood out to me as the strongest and most unique of the cast. Her heartbreak over Marius' infatuation with Cosette was painfully real, and her death was the first scene that made me cry. Every character who died pulled at my heart, especially Gavroche as portrayed by Sam Poon.

The set and effects were stunning throughout the play, especially the use of projections as part of the set. The moving projections made it look as if people were walking through the city, through sewers, and even jumping off a bridge. It contributed a unique aspect to a theatrical experience, making it look in some scenes like a movie shot from multiple angles. That effect wouldn't cater to everyone's taste, but I personally appreciated it. Although there was no revolving stage, the scene transitions were seamless, the set pieces rolling on and off while the action was happening without distracting from the dialogue. The lighting was also artistically done. The opening number stood out, beginning heavily shadowed then transitioned to numerous spotlights trained dramatically on Valjean. They were obstructed by the moving set, creating an ominous barred effect over him. The set was spectacular, making the story seem real, as if it were happening right then in downtown Minneapolis. All the set pieces were huge, making me feel insignificant in the face of the characters’ revolution and their world.

Les Miserables is an experience I will never forget. The acting, for the most part, was beautiful. The strength of my personal investment in the story surprised me. It sent a powerful message about the importance of love and kindness. Even for the few hours of my life that have now been spent in tears, I am grateful I had the opportunity to see this production.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fabulous, Glittering Drag Queens

Maia Crews-Erjavec
La Cage Aux Folles

Fabulous, Glittering Drag Queens

If I had to describe La Cage Aux Folles in one word, it would have to be "fabulous." On October 18th, 2011 at the State Theatre I went to see my first musical off of Broadway. It was a glamorous musical about a nightclub called La Cage Aux Folles, focusing on drag entertainment. Georges, the manager, and his partner and star performer, Albin/Zaza, have to cover up their true identities when Georges straight son, Jean-Michel, tells his father that he plans to get married and must meet his possible fiancee's extremely homophobic parents. I was blown away by this glamorous and rudely funny musical.
The two central characters were much deeper than meets the eye, but all of the chorus drag queens were dancing, singing, and talking stereotypes. I would rather have seen more depth in them, as they were reinforcing stereotypes about drag queens being superficial and always gossiping. However, they did a great job being gaudy and glamorous, singing and dancing as if the theatre really were La Cage Aux Folles. These men were amazing actors, and I forgot their gender multiple times. The lyrics throughout the whole play were both funny and emotional. The melodies of the music did not intrigue me at first, but by the end I was almost singing with them. The singing was great, but what really caught me was the last number of Act I, "I Am What I Am." It was the most intense and emotional song in this play. Georges and Albin were amazing. They were convincing characters and had moving voices that were perfect for their roles.
Before the musical, a gorgeous man with a pink dress sat on the front of the stage and started reading off his paper, all the while complaining and and making numerous rude, hilarious, jokes. He asked us about birthdays, anniversaries, coming out ("Honey, they could see you're gay from space."), and Jewish lesbians (Whom he called "Orthodykes.") Although everything he said had the potential to be extremely offensive, everyone just laughed. He set the mood before the musical even began. It opened with dramatic silhouettes of what appeared to be women and went into a gaudy, glittery number, "We Are What We Are." I was amazed by all the men in drag. The musical continued to be glittery, glamorous, and very long. While I enjoyed all of it, I think the play, at 2 hours and 40 minutes, could have been much shorter. The the songs had a lot of repetition and there were comedic things that could have been cut out of the production without affecting the plot. Every outfit worn was extravagant and shiny, besides what was pointedly not. The actors were stunning, and every set worked well with the choreography in it.
My main complaint about this show would be that  there were parts where the play should have been more serious. When homophobic things were said, the play does not turn to a more solemn feeling, but continues to be comedic. It would have been nice for me if it was taken more seriously because in reality homophobia is a serious issue.
The comedy and length of this musical may have been overkill, but I loved this production. It was fabulous, glittery, gaudy, and I completely recommend it to anyone (old enough to deal with the rude humor) who likes glitter, drag queens, or comedies.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Variant by Robison Wells

Variant by Robison Wells is an exciting page turner. Our protagonist Benson Fisher earns an amazing scholarship to Maxfield Academy, a private school at which he hopes to improve his unsettled foster homed life. He discovers to his astonishment  that once he arrives at Maxfield, he will never be allowed to leave. 

An action-packed mystery, the book starts off faster than what is realistic, but grows more believable throughout the story, and simultaneously becomes more strange. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half, and then proceeded to be blown away by an awesome plot twist in the second. Wells definitely writes more than your average dystopian novel. I recommend this book to anyone, especially with a thirst for mystery and adventure. I'm looking forward to finding out what happens in the next one!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Don't Breathe a Word by Holly Cupala

Don't Breathe a Word by Holly Cupala was a realistic portrait of a psychologically disturbed teenage girl. Overly dependent and eager to please, Joy runs away from her controlling and emotionally abusive boyfriend to live on the streets in Seattle.
What I disliked about this book is that Joy is weak, whiny, doesn't know how to take care of herself, and blames her inexperience on others. I didn't find her likable at all. Her motivation seems to come completely from her infatuation with boys. She moons over them and the story seems propelled by her physical feelings for them-- including her abusive ex whom she originally ran away from. I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if she were stronger emotionally and smarter on the streets.
On a more positive note, there was great use of character parallels that added a lot to the story. Joy’s friend May is physically abused by her pimp and pusher, Maul. They show what Asher and Joy could have become. Cupula is also very good at writing short and powerful phrases that make you stop for a moment to admire and let them sink in. “She looked over her shoulder, and her entire posture changed-- from defiant to broken in one ripple.”
I wouldn't recommend this book to readers who look for strong leads with whom they can identify. Joy does make a journey that ends in a much better place than where she starts, but I found her to still be frustrating at the end of the book. She still has to improve to become a safe and empowered person. However, I can see the appeal of this book for someone who can appreciate the edginess of the story, the journey and the strength it took  her to embark upon it. This book contains sex, violence, drugs, and abuse, and may not be appropriate for many young adult readers.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Every You, Every Me by David Levithan

I'll admit that when it comes to books, I can be a little snob. I pride myself on the fact that I don't read the melodramatic high school books other teenagers read. Until now.

“Every You, Every Me” is a photographic novel written photo by photo in a collaboration between David Levithan and Jonathan Farmer. I found this novel deep, intellectual, and creative, though it occasionally verged on psychotic.

In this story, the protagonist is a troubled boy named Evan who seems incapable of dealing with the ambiguous "loss" of his only friend. It's written in second person to this friend, making it feel more intimate. David Levithan also uses the literary technique of crossing out parts of the text. Although confusing to read at first, the look into Evan's mind (as opposed to his words) adds a fascinating layer to the story.

Jonathan Farmer's photos were beautifully unsettling and made the story more evocative and resonant with the reader. Although this is a teenage book, I think adults can equally enjoy such a dark, moving novel.