Leading the charge in this season of Les Misérables-mania, (the movie opens Christmas day), the National Theatre plays host to Cameron Mackintosh’s celebrated 25th anniversary tour of the global musical sensation. Thanks to several standout performances and cutting edge visuals, the production delivers a stirring, revitalized journey through Victor Hugo’s revolutionary France.
The lights come up on a prison ship buffeted by waves. Grimy prisoners begin a forceful rendition of “Look Down”, with each miserable convict attempting to beat out the other for most heartfelt cry for mercy. As the scene unfolds we meet Jean Valjean, played with fierce conviction by Broadway vet Peter Lockyer.
After 19 years imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread, a newly paroled Valjean struggles to shake the stigma of his criminal past and begin a new life. Valjean is saved from squalor by the kindness and moral guidance of the Bishop of Digne. James Zannelli leaves his mark on this small yet vital role with his resonant baritone and fatherly warmth. With a new lease on life, Valjean delivers an emotional “Soliloquy”, overcoming some rhythm problems to nail the chill-inducing closing line, “Another story must begin!”.
The scene shifts to Montreuil-Sur-Mer several years later, hard luck mother Fantine struggles to support her daughter Cosette. Genevieve Leclerc brings a soft spoken vulnerability to the iconic Mary Magdalene-esque role, which is effective until her torch song “I Dreamed a Dream”. Her gentle soprano is often tested at the higher range, fading just as the song demands she blow the doors off. However, the serene dignity and faraway look she brings to the hospital bed duet with Valjean wrings fresh tears from a place I had previously thought exhausted of all emotional innovation.
As Valjean moves on to a ramshackle inn at Montfermeil, Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic burst onto the scene as the detestable Monsieur and Madame Thenardier. While the Thenardiers have often been played as opportunistic yet good natured, Gulan and Hamic bring a nasty edge to their roles that transform them from grifters into predatory hyenas. Their strange blend of bald American and cockney English accents distract only minimally from their brutally funny antics. Gulan evokes a streetwise Groucho Marx, while Hamic calls to mind Roseanne Barr playing for laughs about her disappointing marriage.
The Thenardiers benefit most from costume designer Andreane Neofitou’s vision as they pivot from middling innkeepers to scavengers to outlandish high society infiltrators. Their ever-present rouge, powder-cake makeup and poofy outfits stick out like a sore thumb at the final dress ball, as befits their pretender status.
Neofitou rarely strays from well-worn designs for the prisoners, prostitutes, revolutionaries, but she does do a yeoman’s work managing Valjean’s transition from prisoner to respected businessman to aged recluse. The changes are so effective that it is not hard to empathize with Inspector Javert as he repeatedly overlooks the fugitive right under his nose.
As for Javert, Andrew Varela brings a special passion to the role of the lawman hounding Valjean’s every step. Varela does his best work whenever Javert’s mask of control begins to slip, hinting at righteous fury below the surface. Like a bulldog pulling on his chain, Varela’s eyes flash and his stocky neck bulges out against his starched collar each time Valjean gives him the slip. He showcases his rich baritone in a powerhouse rendition of “Stars” and a surprisingly unhinged take on the final “Soliloquy”. Some of the potency of his lines about discipline and duty are lost amid several rushed exchanges and gruff mumblings. Varela need only slow down and project a bit to restore the full power of Javert’s dogmatic teachings.
As Valjean evades Javert and sneaks off to gritty, vibrant Paris with Cosette in tow, the remainder of the cast offers up a mixed bag of performances. Devin Ilaw and Lauren Wiley make a fine pair as Marius and Cosette, with strong voices and pleasing harmonies. Ilaw doesn’t experiment much with the role, except within his stark, stone faced rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”. He looks more like a soldier with PTSD than a man consciously mourning his fallen friends. Meanwhile, Briana Carlson Goodman brings a lovely tone to the role of scorned Eponine, but she often fights to stay on beat and at times seems lost during the iconic “On my Own”.
Supporting students and citizens make hefty dramatic contributions to the reinvigorated production. Jason Forbach soars above the fray as inspirational leader Enjolras, using his opera chops to add bombast to “ABC Cafe (Red and Black)”. Joseph Spieldenner and young Joshua Colley form an unconventional yet hugely likeable duo as drunken philosopher Grantaire and pint-sized instigator Gavroche. The older cynic takes a liking to the precocious Gavroche, perhaps glimpsing a bit of himself within the tiny rebel’s anti-authority cheek. The agony on Spieldenner’s face as he learns the worst has come to pass upends a familiar scene with a bolt of genuine pathos.
Closes December 30, 2012
The National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
2 hours, 35 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: start at $58
Tuesdays thru Sundays
As the show races to to its dramatic conclusion, the highly-touted scenic innovations from Fifty-Nine Productions assert themselves upon the stage. In place of the hulking, rotating sets of previous iterations, this Les Mis relies upon high quality projected images drawn from Hugo’s own drawings of France to flesh out specific scenes. The early returns are merely fine, with dirty skylines and crashing waves adding some nifty, if unremarkable ambiance.
The producers’ gamble is finally rewarded during Valjean’s desperate slog through the sewers following the battle. The spot-on perspective and motion of the projected backdrop draws the entire audience inexorably down into a long, dingy tunnel, from which escape seems a distant and slowly flickering hope.
This new staging deserves praise for innovation in several areas, including more emotionally raw renditions of classic songs and digitally enhanced visuals that seek to replace the sacred turntable and barricade armatures. Despite inescapable musical stumbles, the talent level is undeniable, and the high tech design philosophy caters smartly to today’s plugged-in, visually saturated audiences.
And even without all of that, there’s still nothing quite like sitting in a theater and silently mouthing “One Day More” in unison with hundreds of other captivated patrons.
Les Misérables . Musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo . Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg .
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer . Original French Text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel . Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell . Produced by Cameron Mackintosh and Networks . Presented at the National Theatre . Reviewed by Ben Demers