Last summer I saw the 25th Anniversary production of Les Misérables on stage. I started reviewing it, but never finished. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I figured it was time to rescue this from the draft folder before writing my thoughts on the film.

For the 25th anniversary of the show, the staging has been completely redone (in part to get rid of the rotating stage). The songs have been adjusted again, and long-standing direction, costume design and characterization has been allowed to change.

Overall I like the new staging. It’s not a stripped-down production at all – in fact, most of the sets are more elaborate than the original, which basically relied on the rotating floor, lighting, two jumbles of boxes, and a bridge. Fortunately they didn’t go overboard: they let the songs carry the show, which leads to an interesting mix of elaborate sets for ensemble numbers and empty stages for the solos.

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Today, a group of comics bloggers have gotten together to recommend lesser-known gems of the comics world. Comics are more than Brightest Day and Heroic Age, and you just might want to…read this too!

The Unwritten, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Recommended for mature readers. Published by Vertigo Comics.

The Unwritten is a story about stories, and the impact fiction has on reality. It’s told as an adventure, filtered through today’s media-crazed society, modern fantasy (especially the Harry Potter phenomenon), occasional moments of horror, and centuries of popular literature.

It was also my favorite new comic book of 2009.

The Plot

Years ago, author Wilson Taylor vanished after writing 13 immensely popular children’s fantasy novels, leaving his son Tom — the real-life inspiration for “Tommy Taylor” — to grow up as a Z-list celebrity. A question at a fan convention sets the adult Tom onto a path of adventure and danger that has him doubting even his own past, as the world begins to wonder: Did Tom Taylor inspire Tommy Taylor? Or is he Tommy Taylor made real?

By the time of the third major arc, Tom has been proclaimed a messiah, framed for murder, and declared dead. He’s acquired a power trio much like the heroes in his father’s novels (naturally, in the Harry/Hermione/Ron mold), with one ally who may be a fictional character brought to life, and one who plays the sleazy reporter but has his own connections. They’re on the run from a secret cabal, its hit man who can transform objects (and people) into their component ideas…and the surprisingly real vampire nemesis from the Tommy Taylor books, Count Ambrosio.

Stories

Although Tom is just now figuring out his role in events, the villains have been pulling strings for centuries. They’ve shaped the world through stories: by controlling how history was recorded, and by ensuring that stories were written that promoted their goals. One early issue flashed back from the present to Rudyard Kipling, who was quite happy to write stories for them promoting the British Empire…until they asked him to change his tune, and he lost everything.

Of course, since this is a fantasy series, stories can also impact reality directly. Magical objects cross into reality, people travel into stories, and in one case, a particularly tormented story actively threatens the heroes.

Every few issues, the focus moves away from Tom Taylor to reveal another piece of the puzzle. One focuses on two children caught up in Tommy Taylor fandom to the point where they aren’t quite sure where playing ends and believing begins. Another focuses on a servant of the cabal trapped inside a Winnie the Pooh–like setting by a writer who was prepared to stop him.

The Unwritten frequently mixes in excerpts from media commenting on the events of the story: television news, magazine articles, blogs, even Twitter conversations. In one issue, Tom is kidnapped by a deranged fan and threatened on a live webcam feed, while viewers debate whether it’s real or just a publicity stunt. In another, a TV news network focuses on the launch of the latest Tommy Taylor novel, while the ticker at the bottom of the screen runs through a series of dire headlines which would normally be the top stories of the day

The latest issue reveals the past of Tom’s ally and guide, Lizzie Hexam…in a choose-your-own-adventure format. She always ends up in the same place, but the path she takes varies…along with the most important parts of her back story. They’re all equally canonical, and you as the reader get to choose which version is “real.” In a sense, we do that with everything we read or watch. We have our favorite versions of stories, TV episodes and comic book issues that “don’t count,” and our own ideas of what’s going on off-screen or between panels.

The Unwritten is up to 17 issues so far, collected in two trade paperbacks with a third on the way. Carey and Gross have a complete story in mind, one that they hope to tell over 60 or 70 issues. Update 2015: The series is complete now, collected in 11 volumes of the main story and a related graphic novel, Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice.

Interested in reading more? Good! I’ve written about a more traditional super-hero comic, Astro City, at Speed Force. And there are more bloggers out there. Check out the lesser-known titles reviewed in these other blogs and read these, too!

We went out to see two plays* last week: The Glass Mendacity in LA and Ordinary Days at SCR.

The Glass Mendacity is a spoof of Tennessee Williams, mashing together The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and A Streetcar Named Desire into one messed-up family gathering, played as comedy instead of tragedy. There’s Big Daddy and Big Amanda Dubois; their son Brick (played by a mannequin) and his wife Maggie the Cat; their daughter Blanche and her husband Stanley Kowalski; their youngest daughter Laura; and a gentleman caller, who appears in the final sce–okay, he shows up in scene one and never leaves. It’s funny on its own, but absolutely hilarious if you know the plays being parodied.

The production we saw was at the Ark Theatre. It’s a tiny theater upstairs in the historic building that houses the Hayworth Theatre. In the 1920s, even office buildings had character! The lobby is basically entry-level landing to the rear stairway, but they’ve managed to fit in a small bar and a couple of tables.

Ordinary Days is a slice-of-life musical about four people in New York City: a couple just moving in together, a grad student, and an artist. Their stories intersect, and each reaches an epiphany about his or her life over the course of the story. The music reminded me a bit of Stephen Sondheim and a bit of Stephen Schwartz. The cast was good, and the set design did a great job of suggesting various locations in an enormous city.

This was the first show I’d seen at South Coast Repertory’s Julianne Argyros Stage. Somehow I managed to go a whole decade without seeing anything at SCR at all, and the other shows I’ve seen over the last year were all in what used to be the main stage. In my head, I still had the image of the old second stage, a box-shaped studio, up until the point that we walked in the door to see a proscenium stage and a house with a balcony and box seats. I might actually have missed this one, except we ran into one of my music theater teachers from college on the way to Xanadu last month, and he was rehearsing this show as the musical director and accompanist.

Both shows are still running. The Glass Mendacity runs through January 30, and Ordinary Days runs through January 24.

*Hooray for cheap tickets at Goldstar. ← (Darn right, it’s an affiliate link! If you sign up using it, they’ll give me $1 off my next purchase!)

After a Friday spent relaxing at home (no after-Thanksgiving Day sales, unless you count skimming the recommendations at Amazon), we drove up to LA to see the play Equivocation at the Geffen Playhouse. The drive was astonishingly fast (everyone must have been either at home or at the mall!), so we had plenty of time to wander Westwood looking for someplace to eat.

We ended up at Yamato, a Japanese restaurant that I’d definitely eat at again! I did wonder about the original purpose of the building, since it clearly hadn’t been a restaurant to start with. One of us spotted a plaque outside identifying it as The Westwood Building, built in 1929. Among other things, it did include a bank, which was one of my guesses.

After dinner we went looking for places we could get dessert and/or coffee after the show. The two Coffee Beans were both going to close by 9:00, but the Starbucks was open until midnight, and Diddy Riese was open until 1:00. We stopped in at Rocky Mountain Chocolate factory to get some sugar-free chocolate for Katie, and then made our way over to the theater.

The Show

Bill Cain’s play is a political thriller in which William Shakespeare is commissioned to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James I and blow up Parliament. (Remember the fifth of November?) The problem: the king wants him to write the official version of the plot, which has been somewhat…embellished. Shakespeare has to deal with political pressure from the Crown, conflicts among his actors, estrangement from his daughter Judith…and the question of truth: Can he find it? If so, can he afford to write it?

It’s a compelling story — terrorism and torture are topical, and political intrigue is always in fashion — and manages to give you enough information on the background that if you don’t know much about the Gunpowder Plot, or even about Shakespeare, you can still follow what’s going on.

Some familiarity with Shakespeare helps, though. The Globe is rehearsing King Lear at the beginning, and it quickly becomes clear that The True History of the Gunpowder Plot will eventually become Macbeth. References to Shakespeare’s legacy are scattered throughout the play. There’s also a great comedic moment at one point that is only funny if you know about the Porter scene in MacBeth, but it doesn’t interrupt the flow if you don’t know it.

(Some recognizable faces in this production: Harry Groener, the Mayor of Sunnydale from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Connor Trinneer, Trip from Star Trek: Enterprise. Coincidentally, Groener was also in the last play I saw, Putting it Together at South Coast Repertory.)

After the show we walked down to Diddy Riese, but the line was long enough it looked like it might take an hour just to get ice cream. By which time coffee wouldn’t be an option, unless they had some there. So we ducked over to Starbucks for a half hour or so, then drove home.