The odyssey of the redemptive thief turned champion of the innocent and the good, the story of the lodestar Jean Valjean and “the miserables” triumphantly returns to the Kennedy Center replete with the smoke, the shouts, the tragic appeals and the soaring spectacle that has made impassioned believers of audiences for the last 25 years.
Since Les Misérables, or Les Mis, as it’s affectionately known, had its pre-Broadway premiere at the Kennedy Center Opera House in December 1986, nearly 60 million people worldwide have seen the mega-musical. One of the most popular and beloved musical romances, Alain Boublil and Claude–Michel Schönberg’s all-singing version of Victor Hugo’s esteemed novel is the longest-running musical in the world, celebrated for its rousing ensemble numbers and sentimental power ballads.
Les Misérables is an exhausting tale, of the kind fashionable when Hugo penned it in 1862. Set in early 19th century France and populated with prostitutes, student revolutionaries and the dregs of society, it’s really three stories: the saga of Jean Valjean and his magnificent counterpoint, the pursuing policeman Javert; the romantic triangle between Valjean’s ward Cosette, the revolutionary Marius and Eponine, the doomed daughter of degenerates; and the ill-fated June Rebellion of 1832 which was bloodily suppressed after Paris had been put into a state of siege.
From the curtain’s rise we are cautioned to accept that directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have delivered several significant changes to this anniversary edition. Right off the bat, the chain gang scene that originally opened the show has been replaced by one on a slave ship. An arbitrary choice that, appended to the frantic rush through the prologue scenes, initially nags one into dubious unease.
Other immediately distinguishing modifications include the shallow staging (the famous turntable has been jettisoned!) and the gloomier hues throughout the scenic elements, from the backdrops to the costumes. Said to be “reimagined scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo,” this version of Les Misérables is more enveloped in the mud and gloom of Goya than the tri-colored spectacle of David. This is, however, the retooled show’s cleverest victory. Set designer Matt Kinley’s use of the Hugo-inspired atmospheric backdrops and video projections of city streets, dark churchyards and the climactic chase through the sewers are exciting additions, effectively expressing the mood of the work and dynamically propelling the action forward through 3-D technology, especially as the performers have to make do with less space.
In addition to these changes, and minor variations to songs and staging, the orchestrations have been lushly updated by Chris Jahnke, imbuing the score with strings and brass and toning down the mid-1980s synthesized accompaniment that shimmered through John Cameron’s original arrangements.
All these changes aside, the droves come to Les Mis for the music. Really more a collection of songs than a legitimately plotted narrative, this reincarnation is a devil of a spin, highs and lows intact.
Just when you’ve been sorely disappointed with Betsy Morgan’s subdued “I Dreamed a Dream,” she moves you on Fantine’s deathbed. Chasten Harmon’s Eponine weakly traipses through her scenes in Act 1, but then, still with some pitch trouble, delivers her finest moment at the start of Act II, “On My Own.” The clichéd generic comedy of a scene like “Lovely Ladies” is contrasted with the show-stopping hilarity of the Thenardiers introduction in “Master of the House.” The scene-stealing Thenardiers, Richard Vida and Shawna M. Hamic, are perfectly cast as the greedy innkeeper and his wife.
Just as the standoff at the barricades begins to dull the show’s flow, musical gifts like “Drink with Me to Days Gone By” and “Bring Him Home” break through, beginning as warbling pinholes of sound, before transforming into stalwart hymns. Despite the shallower staging and lessened cast of extras, the Act 1 closer “One Day More,” exemplifying the true talents of the original show’s creators, works magnificently.
The leads, J. Mark McVey as Valjean, and Andrew Varela as Javert, are heavyweights. McVey’s Valjean is heroic but twisted with guilt and the actor never loses the awareness of this during the performance. The emotional payoff at his celestial death scene is the viewer’s reward. McVey’s singing throughout is consistently strong but it’s his “Bring Him Home” that mesmerized the audience, resulting in an extended applause.
Varela’s Javert suffers some from the hectic re-pacing of the show, and inevitably lives in the shadow of earlier incarnations from Terrence Mann and Philip Quast, but when he slows down for the character’s memorable solo “Stars,” the policeman’s musings on the natural rightness of law and order, his bass-baritone comes through clearly. Javert’s suicide leap into the Seine later on received a deserved ovation for the ingenious special effects used.
Les Misérables is the world’s longest-running musical for a reason. This is one of those shows where its imperfections truly get lost amidst the magic of its sweep.
After a quarter-century of taking to the barricades, Les Mis is still a winner. You’ll fall in love with these characters and these songs, either for the first time, or all over again.
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Original French Text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
Produced by The Kennedy Center in association with Cameron Mackintosh
Reviewed by Roy Maurer
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes including one 15 minute intermission