Les Miserables

Paper Mill Playhouse - Millburn, NJ - Nov. 2010

Reviewed by John Kenrick

About a quarter century ago, when Les Miserables was set to open in New York, friends who had seen it in the UK told me to catch it at any cost. So for the only time in my long theatergoing life, I waited on a Broadway cancellation line, and got a great orchestra seat to an early preview (paying a whopping $47.50, no less). I was swept away by the dazzling original cast, the overwhelming emotion of the score, and the high tech wizardry of the original staging. But a few years later I returned to see the show again, and to my surprise slept soundly through much of the second act. The replacement cast was competent enough, but most of the magic was missing, and any entertainment that dares to run beyond three hours must have abundant magic to justify taking up that much of an audience's time. Since then, I have seen several high school productions, and have found that the raw enthusiasm of young actors can do much to re-energize this saga, despite its length. So I was curious to see if original producer Cameron Macintosh would find a way to revitalize his show for its 25th Anniversary tour. Could a new staging (downsized for touring purposes) and a cast of unknowns, make Les Miz fresh and moving again?

It is a pleasure to report that the production which debuted at Paper Mill Playhouse is truly Les Miserables reborn. Longtime fans of this show will be delighted with the new physical vision and intrigued by the minimal but important textual tweaks -- for example, a new prologue clarifies the action, and the overall length has been sensibly trimmed without draining any of the show's emotional wallop. Those who have never seen the show before (and what desert island have they been hiding on?) are in for a memorable experience.

Is the score by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, and Jean-Marc Natel sometimes shamelessly bombastic? Of course! Does the English translation by Herbert Kretzmer pull shamelessly at the heartstrings? Certainly. But it is also certain that that these men made the multitudinous characters and events of Victor Hugo's ponderous novel come to vibrant theatrical life, and millions of theatergoers all over the world have been cheering the results long enough to suggest that this musical will be around long after all of its detractors (including more than a few critics) are all gone and forgotten. And so I offer my opinion of the new touring production as one who admires this show for its strengths while openly admitting its weak points.

The new sets by Matt Kinley are inspired by the paintings of Les Miz novelist Victor Hugo. The relentlessly gloomy atmosphere (abetted by Paule Constable's lighting design) often reminds one of Oliver!, and the appearance of a cut-down barricade (obviously a jumble of low-tech set pieces we've been looking at all evening) is something of a let down -- it seems silly to present the resulting junk pile with the prolonged orchestral fanfare created for the far more impressive Broadway pile-up. But new computer-generated back projections add a fascinating cinematic element -- the descent into the sewers of Paris proves breathtaking without any hydraulics in sight. Andreane Neofitou's costumes sustain the iconographic imagery of the original production, and co-directors Laurence Connor and James Powell keep the action clear and eye-filling at all times. Credit is also given in the program to Michael Ashcroft for "musical staging" -- how this differs from direction escapes me, but whoever contributed, this production looks great.

Peter White conducts with a sure hand, making sure every big bombastic musical moment lands with full, ear-pleasing force. I felt all the hoped-for emotional twists and turns of this reliable entertainment, including the spine-chill built into "One Day More" and the almost irresistible sweet sadness of the final scene. (And yes, that finale still fills the stage with a legion of ghosts, all singing handsomely and amplified to a stirring choral climax -- oh my, shameless showmanship can be a delight to see and hear.)

A minor publicity furor was stirred up by the announcement that this production would feature an African American actor as Jean Valjean. As one who believes heartily in colorblind casting, I saw no problem with this idea -- and after some uneven moments in the first act, Lawrence Clayton made this complex and even contradictory character believable. By the time Clayton sang the much loved "Bring Him Home," the opening night audience exploded. Until then, Andrew Varela had been such a vocal and dramatic powerhouse as the determined policeman Javert that he threatened to steal the show. In the end, these two talented men struck the right balance, giving the central conflict in this long libretto maximum impact. Far from being a battle between good and evil, theirs is a struggle between righteousness and right action, and Clayton and Varela made that clash riveting.

Betsy Morgan is sympathetic as the ill-fated unwed mother Fantine, Katherine Forrester is refreshingly touching as her little daughter Cosette, and Jenny Latimer is a vocal treasure as the adult Cosette. Justin Scott Brown is only acceptable as Marius -- one hopes he connects more deeply with his material as this tour progresses. Jeremy Hays is a vocal treat as student leader Enroljas, and Michael Kostroff and Shawna Hamic strike all the right comic notes as the innkeeper Thenadier and his cynical wife. Although Chasten Harmon obviously has the vocal chops to play Eponine, she unfortunately chooses to deliver her words with so many contemporary inflections that it is impossible to accept her in the role. In fact, she sounds as if she is on her own, pretending she's in Dreamgirls -- whether this is her idea or that of her directors, she would do well to join the rest of the cast and become her character.

All small complaints aside, this 25th anniversary tour offers a satisfying opportunity to see why Les Miserables was a landmark show. I left this production more convinced than ever that Les Miserables is far more a grand opera than a musical -- and I mean that as high praise indeed.

This production ran in Millburn through Dec. 30, 2010, and toured the US until it reached Broadway (with numerous cast changes) in 2014.

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