By HOLLY BERETTO
When the newly imagined, 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables blew into the Hobby Center, shaking the rafters and bringing the audience to an almost simultaneous standing ovation Tuesday night, a small, snarky part of me wondered if we were cheering for the cast, the show – or our own love of the show. Twenty-seven years ago, Les Misérables swept across the earth with towering music, a cast of seeming thousands, and a production scale that made audiences collectively gasp at its scope.
This is a show that broke records, launched careers and caused rock-concert-like lines around theaters all across the globe. It is still the world’s longest-running musical, a testament to its enduring themes and rich music.
This new production keeps all of the elements that give Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s send up of Victor Hugo’s classic tale of love and redemption its real soul – but the new staging takes something away that made it gusty and grand. Anyone who’s ever seen Les Misérables will notice immediately –and likely miss keenly – the absence of a massive turntable upon which the musical, well, turned. But we’ll come to that.
From the very first downbeat, this Les Misérables whisks the audience along in the epic tale of the convict Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyear), imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to save his starving sister’s child, and Inspector Javert (Andrew Varela), whose vendetta for Valjean causes him to hunt the man across nearly two decades. At its heart, Les Misérables is about the ripples we make in life, how one life touches another and how love is always the answer, regardless of the question or sacrifice. And Valjean’s life ripples forth to touch so many others: Fantine (Betsy Morgan), a factory girl forced to prostitution; her young daughter Cosette (Lauren Wiley), whom Valjean raises as his own; Marius (Max Quinlan), who wins her love; even the unyielding Javert.
The sheer singing talent is superb. Lockyear delivers Valjean’s odyssey from convict to upstanding citizen with humanity and grace, and his poignant moments, such as Act II’s achingly lovely “Bring Him Home” are as affecting as his grim determination to eclipse the clutches of the steadfast inspector. Varela’s Inspector Javert is a force to be reckoned with, especially in his two stand-out moments, Act I’s “Stars,” which sent actual shivers down my spine, and the scene in Act II where he must re-think everything he knows about this prisoner he’s pursued. Quinlan sings Marius with wonderful youth and hope, a distinct difference from any Marius on any recording of the production, where the tendency is toward over-emoting. And the award for realism in performance clearly goes to Morgan, whose Fantine fairly dazzles with the pain of loss. In fact, there’s a much more realistic – and less melodramatic – element to this Les Misérables, and great credit goes to directors Laurence Conner and James Powell for making it so.
Other cast standouts include James Zannelli as the Bishop of Digne and Jason Forbach as Enjorlas, leader of the student revolution. The innkeeper Thénardier and his wife (Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic) are generally played campy and ridiculous; here they’ve been toned down and are slightly more sinister, an excellent choice as it aligns them more closely with their characters in the original text. “Master of the House” is still a drinking-song-cum production-number, but it’s a trifle watered down. And Briana Carson-Goodman as the Thénardiers’ daughter Eponine does some lovely things with her harmony in “A Heart Full of Love” and her duet with Marius, “A Little Fall of Rain.”
And therein lies the rub. Much of the production seems watered down, but it’s not the fault of the cast, who are definitely talents to watch. There’s a loss of levels without the turntable, and much of the action feels cramped. The projection screens, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, are stunning and the lighting spectacular (both put to tremendous great use in Act II’s sewer scenes), so tremendous kudos to lighting designer Paule Constable and Fifty-Nine Productions, which realized the screens. But the barricade scenes lack dimension with the turntable gone.
In many ways, the barricade and the production force that made it so was another character in the show, and the choice to remove it rankles. Another choice made in this leaner Les Miz was cutting nearly half an hour from the original running time. Bits of dialogue are gone, verses of songs truncated. The result is that you’re whisked along, without ever having the opportunity to stop for breath, to contemplate what just happened, to savor the sweep and devastation, to let your heart recover from one tragedy before stumbling on to the next. (The transition into Fantine’s Act I “I Dreamed a Dream” is particularly horrifying.)
If you’ve never experienced Les Misérables, it’s still a musical of great power and great pathos. It thrills and inspires and moves one to tears. It is, after all, a show about who we are: the flawed and the flailing, struggling as best we can to live our dreamed dreams, to climb to the light. It is an anthem to rising above injustice, and about how love and faith are all we leave behind – and all we possibly ever need. You’ll hear the people sing, all right, but I mourn the empty chair at the empty table where this production began.