MURRAY — It was 1985 when Les Misérables first hit the big stage, smashing records from the West End to Broadway and culminating in a star-studded film adaptation last December. Long-running, emotionally moving, and hugely epic, its massive successes makes it an easy target for Desert Star’s latest parody. Les Miserables, A Lot Less Miserable, is written by Tom Jordan under the direction of Mary Parker Williams and Scott Holman.
A Lot Less Miserable follows the same basic plot-line as the original musical, with a few twists. Prisoner 876-5309 spends 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, where he toils under the eye of Inspector Javert. He is released with a yellow parole card, and then sheds his identity to become Jean Levi Jean, the owner of a successful pants factory. Javert relentlessly pursues Levi Jean as he tries to save the life of the impoverished Funtime, adopts her daughter Cassette from the Thenardiers, and is embroiled in an ill-fated revolution.
Having seen nearly every film, stage, and concert adaptation available, I’m about as well versed with Les Misérables as anyone could be, and I have to commend the author for knowing the source material. Little in the show escaped ridicule: the boring chord structure in “Master of the House,” the overwrought diva flair of “I Dreamed a Dream,” the insincerity of the Cassette/Marius love plot (cleverly noting that the beautiful characters don’t appear until Act 2), and the sheer length of the original show (which can run three hours). There was even a brief, hysterical nod to rival showbiz juggernaut, The Phantom of the Opera.
Unfortunately, the show’s perhaps overdependence on its source musical provided very amusing moments and scenes, but resulted in an uneven production that didn’t manage to consistently entertain. For instance, most of the musical numbers were taken directly from the Les Misérables score and rewritten with comedic lyrics, the success of which varied wildly. Funtime’s diva-dramatic rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” was hysterical, alluding to the desperation of BYU co-eds, Anne Hathway’s performance, and overwrought music in general. But the rewritten “Master of the House” dragged on as a boring two-minute rendition of a five second joke (which is that the Thenardiers serve no real function in the plot). Strict reliance on Les Mis tunes pushed the show into a bit of a rut, each song landing predictably in the original show’s sequence, with only a few clever twists. The closing of Act One, a surprisingly hilarious adaptation of West Side Story’s “Tonight” in place of the famous “One Day More,” worked because it was unexpected and was a clever change from the regular pattern of the show.
The staging was also lackluster in parts, struggling to inject physical comedy into a show with lots of people standing in a line. The painted backdrops were well executed and facilitated quick set changes, but enhanced the feeling that I was watching a 2-D animation instead of a 3-D theatrical performance. However, the moments where the show added unexpected physical gags were spectacular: a cart mowing over Funtime, a hot dog stand wheeling onstage with a 5000 “Franks” payment for Cassette, a flying Funtime angel in a grotesquely huge hat who had difficulty holding still, and a traffic barrier used to create the Les Mis Barricade all got huge laughs. Surprise and an increased sense of physical comedy could have done a lot to propel the show, especially because the cast delivered wonderfully when those elements were present.
Speaking of the cast, Less Miserable featured a strong group of actors. Justin Berry brought a likeable, charismatic presence to the character of Levi Jean, and navigated the much-too-high high notes of “Bring Him Home” with a lot of humor. Camee Faulk and Tyrus Williams looked sufficiently nasty as the Thenardiers, while Ashley Haslam as Cassette brought all the affectations and “I’m pretty, so love me” vibe to the character that has made audiences love or hate her from the moment they realized Marius was going to reject Eponine. Stefanie Omer as Funtime had a hilarious performance with a great operatic voice and a sense of comedic timing that allowed her to really deliver on her parts. And Mekenzie Heaton’s Eponine pulled off a simpering, gap-toothed girl who was constantly being accidentally hit, or stepped on, or knocked over by her love interest. Finally, Michael Mullaney as Javert was a standout of the evening, committing to a Napoleon-esque villain and easily conversing with audience to deliver some of the funniest lines of the evening, including, “I throw your popcorn back at you,” and, “I flaunt my cheek in your general direction.”
Jill Flanagan’s piano skills were another highlight of the evening as she skillfully underscored nearly the entire production. Lynn Funk’s costumes fit the actors well, particularly the overwrought noble disguises the Thenardier’s wore in the second act.
A Lot Less Miserable ended with a much less miserable death, as audience members were suddenly thrown into a game-show style sequence called “Choose Your Own Musical Theater Death” that offered audience members a way to avoid the emotional trauma caused when Levi Jean dies of a broken heart because he doesn’t want Cassette to marry Marius. Choices included the Guillotine, drinking lots of soda, and hanging, but the audience ultimately chose death by Nerf Gun. The execution was carried out promptly by a lucky audience member to conclude the play.
After a brief intermission, the actors returned for a brief musical theater review dubbed “The Olio” which is an important part of the Desert Star tradition. This review, like the rest of the evening, had its highs and lows. “I Will Follow Him,” a hilarious performance by the woman of the cast who dragged a man from the audience and forced him around the stage while declaring their love and devotion to him, was musical comedy at its finest. Yet that success was countermanded by an abysmally off-pitch choral performance in the very next song. This was a surprise because the cast had shown strong vocals throughout the production, but disintegrated when forced to harmonize.
Overall, the show entertained, and entertained well. The audience was appreciative, and the highlights were truly funny. While the performance was sometimes uneven, it provided an entertaining diversion and a was a worthwhile night of family theatre.