The first time I saw a Chicago production of Les Miserables, I was a kid in a candy store. I hung on each note, bought the Broadway soundtrack, obsessed over the piano score and sang those torch songs until my throat hurt.
A couple of decades later, I found myself feeling the same, giddy butterflies in my stomach on the day we had tickets to see Les Mis at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre. I’ve seen several productions of it since my first, breathless initiation, but I knew this would be different – a smaller theatre that puts you this close to the power of love and war and music would undoubtedly be a completely different experience.
I expected it to be a good show.
But there were a lot of things I wasn’t expecting, that the Beef and Boards Les Mis production delivered.
Here are my top 5:
1. Ridiculous, envy-inducing pipes.
I knew the actors and singers would be spilling over with talent. I just wasn’t prepared for how sickeningly good many of them would be. I could listen to Nick Fitzer’s Enjolras calling the people to arms every night until I’m 100, and not get tired of it. Joe Tokarz’ stunning finish of “Stars” is enough to obliterate all the damage that Russell Crowe did to that song, and erase it from my memory. (I really do like him as an actor – BUT…) And when Stephanie Torns belted out “On My Own” as Eponine, I felt my theatre friend (and Beef and Boards costume designer) Jill’s nails digging into my arm as we exchanged stifled giggles of delighted disbelief. From Cosette’s flawless soprano, to the lone survivor Marius’ lamenting soliloquy after the fall of the barricade, to Fantine’s chilling death scene, to the incredible company showstopper “One Day More,” the vocal power took my breath away. It also made me want to rush immediately into the shower, where my own pipes would have a chance of sounding 1/100th as good.
2. A kid on the edge of her seat
We were celebrating my little girl’s 8th birthday, and although she is already a fan of this show, I expected her to get sleepy and fidgety by the end. I was so wrong. She was on the edge of her seat the whole time. She only turned around to ask me questions (“Did he really just say ‘damned?'”) or to make sure I noticed the characters making entrances from the aisles behind us, and, maybe just a few times, to beg me not to sing along. I know. It must be really, really embarrassing. And still, I couldn’t resist.
3. Best. Valjean. Ever.
One of my favorite moments of the show was during “Bring Him Home.” Here’s where I would expect an 8-year-old girl to zone out – a slow solo, sung by a man, with zero action happening on stage. But her wide eyes were glued to him, and her jaw dropped open as she turned to me and said, “He is the BEST singer I have ever heard. In my LIFE!” Even though eight years of musical exposure may not mean that much, I think I agree with her. I can’t think of anyone I have ever heard perform live in such a perfectly beautiful way as Broadway veteran actor Gregg Goodbrod in the role of Jean Valjean. It was just so gorgeous, I decided I wanted to “bring him home” after the show to put on private concerts while I help kids with homework and fix dinner. Maybe I could bring him to the office too…
4. Kids as charming off-stage as they were on
After the show, we stuck around so Clara could meet some of the kids in the cast. I figured that, like everyone I have ever worked with on stage or back stage at Beef and Boards, they would be sweet and welcoming. But they went so far beyond that, giving a starstruck kid the true “star treatment.” I know my shy girl could see a future, more confident version of herself in these theatre kids, especially adorable Anja Reese who played young Cosette. It also didn’t hurt that Beef and Boards casting director (and veteran actor) Eddie Curry made a fuss over Clara at our table before the show, encouraging her to audition in the future. (Thank you, Eddie!)
It probably felt like no big deal to the young actors to say “hi” to a little fan, but it’s these kinds of moments that can flip on a confidence switch in a child, and ignite a spark. I am so grateful for the “Little People” who made our night even more unforgettable.
5. Wanting more
I can’t believe I am already trying to figure out how to get back and see the show again. I want to bring more people to see it. I want an encore.
Just “One Day More.”
Or maybe two.