Los Angeles has more than its fair share of parody musicals grace its stages but Writer/Directors Geneviève Flati and Nathan Makaryk have gone above and beyond with Les Miz And Friends! A Puppet Parody. That’s right – Les Miserables and puppets. If there is a musical more deserving of the skewering that Flati and Makaryk inflict here, I am hoping they will set their sights on it next. From the moment the lights dim and Makaryk in the guise of a House or Stage Manager haughtily covers the pre-show speech by informing us how lucky we are to be able to attend such a musical as Les Miserables we are prepped to laugh, and oh, do we. The premise is that a serious cast of actors are unable to begin their performance because their lead actor is late. These actors are so enamored with their roles, the possibility of a failure to perform is as high as stakes get. Enter Gene to save the day; a light blue fuzzball of a puppet who looks like he’s been lifted straight out of the cast of a children’s programming favorite. Gene claims to know the story but it becomes pretty clear that’s just not true as he dives into the role of Jean Valjean [he insists it’s Gene Valgene, opting not to employ the French pronunciation].
As you can see in the featured image, Gene isn’t the only puppet that makes his/her/its way onto the stage. The Thenardiers (Flati and Makarayk) and Gavroche are puppets now. The Thernardiers take on the role of cynical commentators in any form of the story but when their puppet forms engage in reprise, after reprise, after reprise of the Master Of The House, they far surpass all other versions to date. Cosette (Kevin Garcia) is also a puppet and seems to be the only one who does not seem to understand she is in a parody. That’s partly due to the fact that this production endows her with as much intelligence and self-esteem as the musical does – to make a point. The flat, slight lisp of a voice Garcia gives Cosette makes nearly everything she says into comic gold. Gene and his puppet compatriots never grow tired of pointing out the sexist, the melodramatic or nonsensical aspects of Victor Hugo’s book. They do not spare the 2012 film either – nothing is sacred, everything is questioned and it makes you examine any shred of hero-worship left for its original.
For example, those of us who trained as theatre professionals in the shadow that was cast by this Broadway behemoth cannot help but know the words to On My Own – that song was everywhere for what seemed like forever. Instead of dying on the street in the rain in the arms of a man who does not love her, Eponine (Gabrielle Jackson) gets schooled by a purple powerhouse of a puppet named Epinephrine (Kelly Rogers) who twists the song into meaning that ladies are more than fine on their own with no man to burden them. She has four puppet back-up singers working with her to sell the message and it is simply mesmerizing to watch them work. Epinone and Epinephrine end the song with a vocal call-and-answer that has to be the most fun any Eponine has ever had and is simply the polar opposite of a death scene. Not only is she recharged by this but she is also inspired to take over the role of Enjolras – a leader at the barricade – and the audience was one hundred percent behind her.
If you paused for a moment to wonder who Enjolras is, the parody also shows that you are not alone. Gene informs us at the top of the second act that he read the book during intermission [it’s easier to read when you don’t blink, he tells us] and tests the audience’s knowledge of it with hilarious results. He asks who has read it [less than ten seemed to hesitantly raise their hand – I was not one of them so, full disclosure, I’ve never been able to get past page 323]. He informs us that this is not a story about the French Revolution that began in 1789 but rather, a story about a smaller revolution that takes place in 1832. That part is true – and surprising – for who amongst has not believed that Les Miserables was about the more noble, more elevated, revolution (at least at first)? Gene goes on to defend Javert with a story about a tragedy from his youth that he feels sure the audience members who have read the book will remember and at least one person does – until he tells us he made the whole thing up to prove that no one knows what’s actually at stake in this story [at least not at the performance I attended].
The press for the show promises audience interaction and improv but the way both are utilized here is utterly impressive. In three of those many Master Of The House reprises, Flati and Makarayk sing songs about three members of the audience who have volunteered and base their verses off of the volunteers entirely. This is a talented cast of truly funny people who can really, really sing. And if you are a fan of any Muppet-inspired vehicle, it’s hard not to be jealous of those three volunteers for they get to interact with such beautifully crafted characters. In one instance Flati’s main green puppet (if it has a name, I missed it) “falls asleep” on the leg of one audience member and it just looks like the sweetest thing that could ever happen. Equally wonderful but much funnier was the moment when Flati’s Madam Thernardier reminded one of her guests to “look at the puppet, not the shadow!” (the shadow, of course, is her). In the end, it’s the puppets who turn out to be the enemy “beyond the barricade” as puppets and humans fight for their right to “be free” – and the puppets are merciless in that fight.
With this kind of experience where so many factors are in play, every performance is going to be different but I would bet they will all be as entertaining, as funny and perhaps as cathartic as the one I saw. If the original is known for being “a musical that makes history,” this send-up should be known as the musical that makes us laugh till we cry and beg for more. It’s beyond smart, and right before its end, it reveals a musical similarity to a familiar patriotic refrain that does indeed threaten to alter our love for at least one of the musical’s best-known songs, forever. The cast and creatives work hard, and we benefit from every drop of sweat they shed. The cast of singers and puppeteers includes Nathan Makaryk (Gene, Thenardier), Geneviève Flati (Bits, Madame Thenardier), Christopher Robert Smith (Javert), Hailey Tweter (Fantine, Gavroche), Gabby Jackson (Eponine & others), Jaycob Hunter (Marius, Felix & others), Carter Michael (Enjolras, Bishop & others), Kelly Rogers (Epinephrine & others) and Kevin Garcia (Cosette, Foreman & others).
Based on the Novel by Victor Hugo and the musical by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. The Stage Manager and Costume Coordinator is Lauren Shoemaker. Lighting Design by Ray Long. Assistant Musical Direction by Jenny Schniepp. The Sound Operator is Rachel Deering. Music Assembly by Devin Norris. Assistant Props/Puppet Maintenance by Chris Patstone. Ray Long is the Technical Crew. The performance runs 120 minutes with one intermission.
April 5- May 11
Every Friday @ 8pm, Every Saturday @ 3pm & 8pm
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.