The Hideout Theatre's Grand Misery

This improvised send-up of the musical Les Miz is as much fun as the real show is serious

Photo by Steve Rogers Photography

During sophomore year, I was one of 10 chorus boys in my high school's production of Les Misérables (no more than that signed up). Expected at nearly every single rehearsal, we made one another laugh to pass the time: making up alternate lyrics backstage, quoting Braveheart before battle scenes, and seeing who could die the most dramatically at the barricade. I haven't had as much fun with Schönberg's tragic musical since – that is, until I attended Grand Misery.

The Hideout Theatre's latest mainstage production, Grand Misery sees a cast of 15 seasoned improvisers craft a two-act musical based upon the international megahit. Unlike other Hideout musicals, such as Orphans!, which draw on themes and elements from a variety of shows with similar content, Grand Misery wears its one inspiration on its sleeve. The performance I attended included many recognizable Les Miz elements: boisterous ladies of the night, pathetic waifs, barricade battles, and dramatic death scenes. Credit where it's due, the performers create their own show within this framework, weaving several unique plot threads around one another without copying the source's themes directly.

Tragic though the material is, I can't recall the last time I've seen a group so clearly enjoy performing. Aiming to entertain one another as much as the audience, the improvisers in this large cast frequently pointed out their own plot holes and cracked contemporary jokes, breaking the fourth wall so much that it was nonexistent by the end. For the most part, the audience enjoyed this, too.

Though the scoring of laughs is king, that's not to say the show neglects its narrative. Most impressive was how Grand Misery tackled a mind-boggling number of individual characters and convoluted side stories without becoming a surface-level parody. As directors, Margaret Hunsicker and Mallory Schlossberg exhibit the rare ability to play to improvisers' individual strengths. For example, in the role of the kindhearted, Jean Valjean-esque patriarch, Hideout Artistic Director Roy Janik displayed a booming, dance-like-nobody's-watching confidence that anchored the show in sincerity. Meanwhile, improv veteran J.R. Zambrano brought his usual knack for character work to several distinctive personae, with his unwavering repetition of the word "Monsieur" serving to gently remind the audience (and at times, the cast) where these scenes were set.

As for the show's musical aspect, Grand Misery includes some choice vocals, most notably the stirring alto of Hideout regular Casey Marie, who delivered the emotional authenticity that I've come to expect from Hideout's mainstage shows. With a vocal prowess that'd fit right into a professional production of Les Miz, Marie's performance balanced out the cast, keeping the less vocally inclined members from being (too much of) a distraction. Supporting the entire production was its key player, musical director Tosin Awofeso. From his keyboard command center just off stage left, Awofeso escorted the players from airy singsong numbers to heavy moments of loss. On full display was his remarkable ability to play off the energies onstage, as well as guide them himself. It wasn't hard to see why Awofeso has become such a respected talent in Austin improv circles. I can't imagine how well this show would've worked without his vision, and luckily, I didn't have to.

Strangely enough, I left the Hideout inspired by Grand Misery's message, before I remembered that, in fact, the show has no message – at least not the same heavy-handed one in Les Miz. (Heck, even the Grand Misery performers were laughing at their own attempts to mine a deeper meaning from the tale they'd woven.) Therein lies what makes this Hideout show worth the price of admission. By virtue of its many stylistic cogs meshing together, I left Grand Misery believing it had imparted some lofty point – one crafted well in advance by a composer and playwright rather than improvised on the spot. It's one thing to parody a musical's aesthetic, in the costumes, plot points, and characters, but it's another to capture its essence so well as to make a send-up of (nearly) equal length worth engaging.

Grand Misery

The Hideout Theatre, 617 Congress
Through March 2
Running time: 1 hr., 40 min.

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The Hideout Theatre, Hideout Theatre, Margaret Hunsicker, Mallory Schlossberg, Roy Janik, J.R. Zambrano, Casey Marie, Tosin Awofeso

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