WASHINGTON, December 16, 2012 – Now at the National Theatre in downtown Washington, Cameron Mackintosh’s hyperkinetic new 25th Anniversary production of Les Misérables is a knockout in nearly every way. The energy, the pathos, the excitement, the romance—all of it’s there in this modestly re-imagined, slightly slimmed down production that’s notable for the high quality of its vocal artists as well as the smooth, clockwork-precise morphings of its perpetual-motion sets.
Starting out in 1980 as an under-realized musical concept in Paris, Claude-Michel Schönberg’s, Alain Boublil’s, and Jean-Marc Natal’s Les Misérables, was not brought fully to life until Herbert Kretzmer provided an excellent English translation of its French-language lyrics which helped bring it to London. The re-tooled and lavishly budgeted show received mixed reviews after its 1985 official premiere. But almost from the start, audiences didn’t care what anyone said. The show became a monster hit and an integral part of London’s surprising Broadway invasion.
As regular theater goers likely know, Les Misérables, the show, is based on Les Misérables, the 1862 Victor Hugo novel: a sprawling, epic tale, Dickensian in depth and scope, that’s ultimately centered around the failed Parisian uprising of 1832. It’s as much a social commentary as it is a compelling story, pitting the haves against the have-nots, the callow rich vs. the (usually) virtuous poor, and the amorality of the ruling classes against the crude but logical social code of the less well off. That said, there is still enough ambiguity on both sides to keep things realistic and interesting, albeit thrillingly melodramatic as well.
Les Misérables, the show, carves out much of this melodramatic stuff, transforming it into a compelling evening of musical theater that, if not quite Victor Hugo, provides the essence of this French masterwork with surprising economy and almost cinematic pacing.
The essential plotline of Hugo’s novel is retained in this show. Through re-telling and flashback, we learn that Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyer), Les Miz’ central character—who starts out in life as your average lower-class Frenchman—has spent nearly twenty years in the French prison system for stealing a loaf of bread to help feed members of his extended family. As is often the case in a brutal prison environment, he exits the system as not a very nice guy. Down and out, he’s treated kindly by a Parisian bishop (James Zanelli) but repays the kindness by swiping the bishop’s silver.
Caught with the contraband by the man who proves to be his chief nemesis, Inspector Javert (Andrew Varela), he’s bailed out by the bishop who insists he’d given the silver to Valjean to help him get a fresh start in life. Inspired to lead a better life from this point on by the bishop’s noble act of charity, Valjean vows to do better with his second chance and proceeds to do so. But he’s continually haunted by the presence of Javert, as the two engage in a perpetual cat-and-mouse game that would be familiar to fans of the American film and earlier TV series, “The Fugitive,” in which the relentless Lieutenant Girard pursues the innocently convicted physician, Richard Kimble.
Eventually becoming a businessman and even a village mayor of a Parisian suburb, the disguised Valjean effectively adopts Cosette (portrayed as an adult by Lauren Wiley and briefly, as a child, by Erin Cearlock or Abbey Rose Gould in alternating performances), the daughter of the unfortunate prostitute Fantine (Genevieve Leclerc). In doing so, he pays off the nasty Thénardiers (Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic), who, in caring for Cosette treat her badly even as the indulge their own young daughter, Éponine (played as a child by either Ms. Cearlock or Gould and as an adult by Briana Carson-Goodman).
We fast-forward again with Jean Valjean no longer mayor, still fleeing from Javert, and now living incognito elsewhere in Paris with Cosette, who’s now become a beautiful young woman. They find themselves in the middle of troubled times as an uneasy alliance develops between the downtrodden lower classes and French student sympathizers who work themselves into a revolutionary fervor as they oppose the French government and elites. Cosette falls in love with one of the students, Marius (Devin Ilaw).
After violent trials and tribulations we ultimately arrive at a bittersweet ending to this epic tale in which love, friendship, loyalty, and courage ultimately prevail against society’s wickedness.
Abandoning the famous scenic turntable of earlier Les Miz productions, the current show instead adopts a somewhat more economical but still quite impressive series of constantly shifting sets, props, and backdrops that’s not particularly lavish but is thoroughly evocative. And, in the case of the opening galley scene and the later pitched battle scenes, the sets and scenes are quite compelling.
In addition to the passion, romance, and action that make this show a good deal more visually exciting than most Broadway-style shows, Schönberg’s marvelous score is likely what’s made this musical a must-see hit now for its contemporary fans. The tunes are great, and the French lyrics are rendered brilliantly in the stylized, period-mimicking English translation by Herbert Kretzmer. And all the songs wear their varied emotions on their metaphorical sleeves. Yes, this can get a little drippy. But so does Mimi’s death scene in Puccini’s La Bohème where we know what’s coming but we still shed a tear anyway.
When Les Miz was still new, this reviewer couldn’t afford a ticket, so we can’t compare the current cast in any meaningful way. That said, the cast of the current 25th Anniversary production is almost uniformly good to great, inhabiting their characters with great zest, singing with great courage and compassion—often at an operatic level. Whether appealing or appalling, each character is carefully delineated, with almost all of them taking on, at times, an unimagined level of complexity. The whole production is professional in every sense of the word.
As Jean Valjean, Peter Lockyer is clearly the star of this show. It’s a taxing role requiring a lot of stamina and a great deal of singing across every range of emotion. But Mr. Lockyer handles the part with surprising ease, creating great sympathy for his beleaguered character whose emotional and moral roller-coaster ride is the essence of the show.
Equally impressive is Andrew Varela’s performance as Javert, Valjean’s steely-eyed, implacable nemesis. With his deep, authoritative baritone, Mr. Varela executes perfectly that fine dramatic line that makes his character a surprisingly conflicted villain, avoiding the possibility of dropping over the edge into two-dimensional caricature.
While these two characters dominate the dramatic musical scenes, it’s the female cast members who carry much of this show’s emotional undercurrent. Genevieve Leclerc, Briana Carson-Goodman, and Lauren Wiley (Fantine, Éponine, and Cosette) are wonderfully intimate and articulate in their signature solo numbers and all mostly avoid the constant—and tedious—belting that has seemed to be the fashion in popular music styles for upwards of twenty years now. Variability is the key to projecting real emotion, and all three singers seem to have taken this to heart in their elegant, carefully nuanced vocal approaches, only turning on the afterburners when it’s absolutely necessary. (We wish contestants on American Idol would take the hint.)
Devin Ilaw turns in a fine performance as an understated but increasingly bold Marius. And Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic seem to delight in their wickedly comic turn as the dastardly Thénardiers.
Both the chorus and the choreography in this production were close to flawless, and the small 14-piece ensemble performed effectively and well. However, on occasion—as is often true of the reduced instrumental ensembles that have become so popular during traveling productions—the lack of a fuller orchestra seems to encourage bouts of over-amplification. Most of the amplification sins in this production occurred during the earsplitting opening scene which, we suspect, sounded exactly like the American landing at Normandy Beach. We have no problem with realism in theater, but literal realism, not so much. The nuclear-powered percussion here made it impossible, at least for this reviewer, to hear much of the singing or the music.
The rest of the show, blessedly, was more carefully modulated, although the over-all amplification was perhaps a bit much more than it needed to be.
In the end, though, this new production of Les Miz will thrill and delight nearly everyone who will nightly pack the National during its too-short holiday run. If you’re thinking of getting tickets, we suspect you’d better act quickly.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars out of four.)
Running Time: About three hours and ten minutes including one intermission.
Les Miz is onstage now through December 30, 2012 at the National Theatre in downtown DC at 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. Tickets are available online via Telecharge as well as through other ticket brokerage sites. Tickets also available via phone at 202-628-6161 or 800-447-7400.
Les Misérables plays through December 30, 2012 at The National Theatre – 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 628-6161 or (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online through Telecharge.
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