Les Misérables | 10.16.12

lesmiserable sqAll your favorites are still here and they are still loud, but they are more pensively loud.


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Just in case anybody stops reading after the first sentence (and if you do, don’t tell me), the most important thing you need to know about the 25th Anniversary Tour of Les Misérables, just opened at the Fox Theatre, is that this is not your parents’ “Les Miz.” The show’s scenic design has gone through a major overhaul, reflecting the changes made possible by technology unavailable when it premiered in 1985, and most of them are improvements. But the biggest surprise is in the reimagination of this piece in ways that changes the way we view it, by where it places its emphasis and the style it chooses to embrace.

Les Miz has always been a big show, the kind that fills stages and wows audiences with a detailed barricade on a turntable, and actors who shout/sing their occasionally simplistic but stirring anthems. Almost every major character, it seems, has an 11 o’clock number: “Stars” (Javert); “On My Own” (Eponine); “Master of the House” (the Thénardiers); “I Dreamed a Dream,” (Fantine); and “Bring Him Home” (Jean Valjean). And those aren’t even the rousing curtain numbers, “One Day More” (end of Act I) and the Finale. Don’t be afraid though. All your favorites are still here and they are still loud, but they are more pensively loud and the show remains all but sung through.

The story is simple: Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyer) was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. He served 19 years as a galley slave (anachronistic, but impressive) before being paroled in 1815 in Digne, France. He stole from a Bishop on his first night of freedom, but the holy man defended him to the law. Valjean moved on to start a new life and “become an honest man,” much to the dismay of one Inspector Javert (Andrew Varela), who believes that Valjean’s freedom is an insult to all he believes about justice.

So, Javert becomes the one-armed man to Valjean’s Richard Kimble (yep, The Fugitive has its roots in Hugo’s classic novel, too). Valjean becomes a successful factory owner and even mayor of a town within eight years. He adopts an orphan after failing to help her mother, Fantine (Betsy Morgan), who worked for him before she fell into disrepute and died (singing). Nine years later (1832 now), he is caught up in a student revolution which doesn’t work out well for the rebels. All the while, Javert lurks; he and Valjean have several encounters, but the inspector isn’t able to bring his man to “justice.”

Valjean’s ward, Cosette (Lauren Wiley, who is played as a child by Erin Cearlock and Abbey Rose Gould), grows up regarding him as her father and he is the love of her young life, at least until Marius (Max Quinlan) sees her and they fall in love at first sight, much to the disappointment of Eponine (Briana Carlson), whose dreadful parents fostered Cosette, in a Cinderella kind of way. Now the tables are turned, however. Eponine’s parents, M. and Mme. Thénardier (Timothy Gulan, Shawna M. Hamic), who once kept a shabby inn/whorehouse in the country, are scrounging for a living in the city, robbing corpses and whatnot. The Thénardiers serve a peculiar function, and one not too often seen: They are the villains and the comic relief both. Very economical.

How these events all play out is the story of Les Misérables, but the manner in which they are presented is the backbone of one of the most continuously compelling and successful pieces of musical theater during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Scorned by critics who consider it middlebrow, it is equally beloved by audiences. The reasons for that are simple: It is compelling in all the right ways; the four recurring strains of the score could be played on your heartstrings; and everybody loves a lover.

Unlike The Phantom of the Opera, which is all style and little substances, Les Miz has a central core of conviction that underlies any working social system: We have to care about and help each other, or we are all doomed. And here, while lots of people die, it is made clear that death is just a step away from this world, and that “to love another person is to see the face of God.” (Since the people who tell us this are all dead when they sing this final lyric, they should know).

The performances are generally spectacular. Cosette and Marius as the young lovers are a fulcrum for the emotional core of the show, but in themselves, less interesting than the more three-dimensional men and women. I see a parallel with them to the student leader, Enjolras (Jason Forbach), who is more symbol than substance, but these parts are sung well and are essential, if not deep. Eponine has more to do, in fact, she keeps Valjean and Cosette safe from the Thénardier gang. Carlson comes the closest among this cast to singing her role the way I’ve always heard it, but even she has some lyrics to deliver reflectively. Morgan gives an unusual reading of “I Dreamed a Dream”; it’s more resigned than I’m accustomed to hearing it, and more “American.”

In fact, I think it’s fair to say the whole show has finally and completely crossed the pond. There are very few accents or mannered renditions of lyrics except to an extent with the Thénardiers, who are both perfect for their roles. Varela is an imposing and impressive Javert, the man who lives to do the right thing but is too blind to see what it is, and his voice is a superb instrument. As Valjean, Lockyer is simply amazing. He seems to gain strength during this King Lear of musicals, and he is just as powerful at the end as he was in the beginning.

Lawrence Goldberg conducts an absolutely first-rate orchestra under the musical supervision of David Caddick. The directors of this very special production are Laurence Connor and James Powell, and they and their team have produced a glorious spectacle for eyes and ears. Scenic designer Matt Kinley was “inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo,” according to the program, and the iconic symbol of a sad-eyed little girl has been replaced by a projection of one of those paintings on a scrim at the front of the stage seen as we enter the theater. When the lights (Paule Constable) go up, we see through it and then it is raised to reveal the new setting in the bowels of a ship. After Valjean’s escape, the scrim is again lowered, now noting simply “les misérables.” Very effective, as are the use of the projections of street scenes, sewers, woods, a river, and varied other settings rendered in Hugo’s expressionist style throughout the production.

Of course, it takes a really big village to do justice to Cameron Macintosh’s vision and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music (lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer from the original French by Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel), and the team has fully realized all that here. After the first number in Act II on opening night, however, a piece of scenery balked and the show had to be stopped for about 10 minutes. When the problem was solved, the sultry stage manager voice told us that they were ready to begin “upon your applause.” They got it then, as they had received a thunderous ovation at the end of Act I and at the curtain call, which was rowdier than Game 6 of the World Series last year. If you’ve seen Les Miz before, you’ll want to experience it anew. If you’ve never seen it, I envy you the opportunity to witness it live for the first time.

Bravo. | Andrea Braun

Les Misérables is at the Fox Theatre through October 28. Visit www.fabulousfox.com for more information, including ticket prices and show times.

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