[A new production of Les Miserables, now in its 25th year in London, opened in December at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, prior to a 20-city U. S. tour. The show plays Detroit’s Fisher Theatre March 22-April 3. Theater critic Philip Dorian reviewed the New Jersey opening.]
British impresario Cameron Mackintosh doesn’t skimp and, despite a few technical adjustments, neither does his 25th anniversary production of Les Miserables. A 35-member cast, headed by Broadway veterans, is bringing fresh energy to the sung-through show; its lyrical score has never sounded better. The voices and the concert-worthy orchestrations are superb. There’s little verbal dialogue, leaving it up to the lyrics to tell the story, which they do with full-frontal impact.
The stage-musical version of Victor Hugo’s 1200-page novel follows Jean Valjean (Lawrence Clayton) from 1815, when he’s paroled from galley slavery for stealing a loaf of bread, to the ill-fated 1832 student uprising in Paris. Over all that time, Valjean is relentlessly hounded by the unyielding police inspector Javert (Andrew Varela) for violating his parole.
Neither Valjean nor Javert is a multi-dimensional character, but Clayton and Varela portray them intensely. Together, they carry the bulk of the drama in their music, and both sing the roles with resounding authority. Clayton turns Valjean’s lyrical “Bring Him Home” into a heart-rending aria, and Varela mines the depths of Javert’s despair in his “Soliloquy.” (Reversing roles would not be a stretch; Varela, in fact, played Valjean on Broadway and on tour.)
There are robust contributions from the singing ensemble, appearing as galley slaves, prostitutes, freedom-fighters and townsfolk. The student rebellion at the barricades, the rousing “One Day More,” raises the bar on choral dynamics.
Instead of a revolving stage, the most memorable scenes are re-created with stunning ingenuity via creative lighting against a backdrop of digitally manipulated projections of Victor Hugo’s own drawings. Valjean’s rescue of his adopted daughter’s beloved Marius through the sewers of Paris is one such effect, and (spoiler alert) Javert’s tricky suicide leap is even more effective here than on the Broadway (or London) stage.
The show, long on drama and stirring music, is short on comedy, but the amoral Thenardier couple’s “Master of the House” and “Beggars at the Feast” are welcome diversions.
With several parallel stories – the classic fugitive tale, desperate love and political rebellion – the condensed version of Hugo’s massive novel was originally something of an audience endurance contest, and while not as long as the Broadway original, which clocked in at well over three hours, this Les Mis runs just under three. (The show was pared-down late in its Broadway run as well.) Ironically, the action-packed 90-minute first act seems shorter than the 70-minute second, which includes a couple of death scenes that continue past their sell-by dates.
Any and all minor negatives will not matter to members of the Les Mis cult. (You know who you are.) Many diehards have seen it dozens of times – some, by reports, a hundred or more. They might notice a few adjustments, but will not be disappointed. And newcomers to the show will discover what all the fuss is about. As directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, with musical staging by Michael Ashcroft, and overseen by original producer Cameron Mackintosh, there’s nothing second-rate in the officially authorized 25th Anniversary revival of the stirring pop-opera.
March 22-April 3 at the Fisher Theater, 3011West Grand Blvd., Detroit. Performances Tues-Sat at 8pm; Sun at 7:30; matinees Sat and Sun at 2pm. Tickets ($39-$110): 800-982-2787.