The Thrust: Hitting the Righteous Notes

At The 5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle Opera, and The Phoenix Theatre, three musically-driven shows invite you to pick a side. Les Misérables (touring) performs through 6/17 at The 5th; the chamber opera Bound performs through 6/18; and the comedy Glorious performs through 6/25. 


If there’s been an unexpected hit of my viewing year thus far, it’s Sweeney Todd. The Demon Barber of Fleet Street isn’t exactly obvious fodder for a musical, but a stalwart hit it’s become, due largely to a phenomenal score by Stephen Sondheim and an enduring tale of vengeance and justice. Still, I doubted I needed another round of it just yet.

But The 5th Avenue Theatre’s fresh take on it, directed by Associate Artistic Director Jay Woods, was both a thrilling piece of entertainment and a searing staging of law versus justice. The system and its lords might reign over all; but it was quite clear where our sympathies would lie. Well, until all that messiness at the end, of course.


With that striking tale in mind, I set out to two more impassioned law-versus-justice musical tales: the grand Les Misérables, in the long-running touring production performing now at The 5th; and the chamber opera Bound, entering its second and final weekend at Seattle Opera. Both shows essentially tackle the setup of an unfair sentence and its lasting marks, as the law collides with justice. Unfortunately, neither does it as well as the surprising Sweeney Todd, albeit for totally different reasons.

This tour of Les Misérables is the perfect production. Good luck finding any fault with it: it’s enthralling and beautiful, with seamless transitions, and utterly cinematic.

What’s missing? The stakes. With everything this glistening and well-produced, and indeed it is a glorious spectacle, it feels more like a fantastical theme park journey than a stakes-driven tale. And though our protagonist Jean Valjean’s past comes back to haunt him throughout, he’s granted security nonetheless (albeit a somewhat precarious one), until he gets his wish to be reunited with his beloved Fantine anyway.

With gorgeous vocals and design, projections that feel like a movie, and snap-and-you’ll-miss-’em set changeovers, Les Misérables feels straight out of Hollywood. It’s the height of in-the-moment entertainment. Just don’t expect to be on the edge of your seat or do much right-versus-wrong soul-searching afterwards.

In contrast, Bound, a modern small-stage opera, sheds any production backdrop and goes straight to the characters and the composition. This English-sung, one-hour opera, which premiered at Houston Grand Opera, tells a slice of the (true) story of hard-working honors student Diane Tran, who’s sent to jail for too many school absences while working two jobs to feed herself and her younger siblings. At its simplest, this is a tale of what happens when the letter of the law — which bound a truancy court judge to send her to jail, although he didn’t seem to find much fault in that result — collides with the spirit of justice.

Opera librettos are melodramatic, of course, though to many of us that’s only on full display when they’re performed in English, as here. Even still, this tale’s focal points are frustrating. The libretto by Bao-Long Chu features some memorable, jarring lines, as the mother sets the tone for the tale (My heart breaking backward, to the beginning of betrayal); and her estranged teenage daughter conveys the bleakness of her own position (My friends dream of dresses for the junior prom … I wish for such simple joy).

But in adherence to the “bound” narrative, we miss what feels like important bits of the daughter’s tale. We don’t sense, for example, what personal drive motivates her to maintain her high grades, a burden practically unthinkable with that much on her plate. And as the daughter is stripped of her agency, her mother — who’s never actually present in this story, only as a persistent shadow over the girl’s — seems now to possess it all, choosing to buck where history has placed her. Meanwhile, the judge comes across as simply a jerk, and one utterly removed from reality. Was he really a one-sided robot of the truancy law? It’s an important point left unexplored here.

Musically, the composition is phenomenal. Written and conducted by Huang Ruo, and performed here by Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ (Đan bầu and Đan tranh) and David McDade (piano, performed second weekend by Li-Tan Hsu), the score captures doom, discord and dirge, the dramatic, the urgency, the futility. It provides for both the journey and the backstory, with some tender moments, then sets up the hammer coming down. It allows this true tale to be both jarring and predictable in its trajectory.

Though it packs a musical punch, it’s a shame this opera felt bound to remain a neutral bystander. A rigid legal system and an absentee parent’s ghost get far more deference here than they’ve earned in this story.


Meanwhile, if there’s one thing Florence Foster Jenkins is not hitting, it’s the right notes. But don’t try telling her that.

Glorious: The True Story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the Worst Singer in the World, on now at The Phoenix Theatre in Edmonds, introduces the mostly unfortunate notes of a 1940s New York socialite with enough money to self-finance her vocal dreams, and enough passion (or delusion) to stage them. Glorious features the generally hilarious Melanie Calderwood, a staple of The Phoenix, in the title role, which sounded promising from the start.

Outside of an absurd (and true) premise, this story is tough to peg as a comedy, for the same reason it’s tough to really root for any character. Jenkins is no underdog, and her “rising star” story isn’t much more than a rigorously orchestrated hoax. Anyone challenging the celestial beauty of her vocal stylings is shut down and cut off. Her concert circuit is little more than an elaborate pay-to-play scheme, which she can support not on talent but on financial security, surrounded by a crowd of yes-people. That last bit would make the most interesting story: why were so many people so ready to praise her so-called talent?

As a comedy, this story isn’t going to answer that. But for some easy laugh lines and generally bad singing, Jenkins will be there, regally clad, awaiting your unrestrained applause.


Les Misérables (touring) performs through 6/17 at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Produced by Cameron Mackintosh. Tickets (if available) and info here

Bound performs through 6/18 at Seattle Opera’s Tagney Jones Hall in the Opera Center, at the Seattle Center. Performed by Karen Vuong, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, and Daniel Klein; directed by Desdemona Chiang. Tickets and info here

Glorious performs through 6/25 at The Phoenix Theatre in EdmondsWritten by Peter Quilter, ​directed by Eric Lewis. Tickets and info here.  

Sweeney Todd performed at The 5th Avenue Theatre through 5/14. Info here.  

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of