BWW Reviews: National Tour of LES MISERABLES at DC's National Theatre - Still Impressive in Revised Version
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by Jeffrey Walker
What more could I possibly add to anything written about the juggernaut musical LES MISERABLES?
If you are a regular reader of Broadway World - pick any major city - chances are you have seen the show more than once, own at least one recording of the score, and probably have never read Victor Hugo's little book that started it all. (Color me guilty.) Therefore, I will not rehash what most of us already know and soon the world of movie-goers will know once the hyped-to-the-hilt film of LES MISERABLES opens on Christmas day.
Now making its tenth return visit to our nation's capitol, the second time in this revised edition, Les Miz, as it is known far and wide, still has the power to elicit cheers from the audience, no matter how familiar they might be with this story of redemption and the journey of Jean Valjean from prisoner to hero.
I believe that the tweaks and revisions made for the 25th anniversary production and tour of the show are welcome additions to an otherwise critic-proof venture.
Co-directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, this revised Les Miz brings an added urgency to the epic, sung-through musical. From the slave-ship conditions Jean Valjean endures in the prologue scene, to a seemingly revved up pacing throughout, there is a more grit and danger now than in the previous incarnation of the show. There were also bigger pay-offs during key moments of the story, such as the confrontation between Valjean - Peter Lockyer - and the single-minded policeman Javert - Andrew Varela. The stakes seemed higher - perhaps due to the excellent work and intensity of Lockyer and Varela in the leading roles, but certainly a credit to Connor and Powell's vision of the piece.
Connor and Powell's staging innovations also add additional distractions during certain scenes: the excellent ensemble is at times almost too lively while principals are fending for themselves downstage. Parents might want to take note that some of the background action includes several instances of simulated copulation, especially during "Lovely Ladies" and the usually comic "Master of the House." I'm no prude, but I am glad I didn't have to explain to an eight year old child what that nice man was doing to that nice lady on the staircase during an elaborate musical number.
The physical production, having thrown out the formerly standard turntable, has an almost traditional look, with flexible set-pieces that shift into the various locations with ease. (There were times when the sound design and onstage action did not mask the noisy set moving behind the scenes.) Designed by Matt Kinley, the sets are enhanced by projections based on the somber paintings of the Victor Hugo himself. From the subtleties of the opening show curtain to the illusion of movement in the Act One Finale, "One Day More," the projections serve as a complement and do not distract from the sweeping story unfolding on the stage.
I was, however, distracted, at first, by the new and initially bombastic orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke, with additional orchestrations by Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker. John Cameron's original orchestrations have been enhanced to bring out more color in the score. This version also uses a larger troupe of musicians. My ears were taken by surprise, especially in the opening chords, when a wall of sound roared from the towering speakers. But, once the show settled in, I appreciated the nuances of the re-orchestrations. I would even say that Claude-Michel Schönberg's somewhat repetitive score sounded less so, thanks to the work of Jahnke, Metcalfe and Brooker.
Perhaps I am in the minority, but among the performers, only two failed to impress me: Timothy Gulan's Thénardier and the Madame Thénardier of Shawna M. Hamic. Gulan and Hamic had nothing new to offer in their roles, especially during their musical hall turn, "Master of the House." (The mimed intercourse in the middle of the song may have pulled focus from their performances, but hey, I'm easily distracted.) I not only missed laughs from the treacherous couple, I missed the sense of danger the Thénardiers can add.
As the young couple, Marius and Cosette, Devin Ilaw and Lauren Wiley were earnest and sang their material with sweetness that never tipped the scales into the saccharine. Briana Carson-Goodman, as the waif Eponine, was straight-forward and offers a strong rendition of her signature song "On My Own," as she sang of her unrequited love of Marius. The protesting students - think Occupy Paris, circa 1832 - were lead by the Jason Forbach's well-sung Enjolras.
Nearly a cameo, the role of Fantine goes from hard-working single mother to desperate prostitute and dies during the first 25 minutes of the show. During that time, Fantine also performs one of the most haunting and oft-performed songs in the score, "I Dreamed a Dream." Genevieve Leclerc makes a favorable impression as the doomed, yet devoted mother and sings her anthem memorably.
Gorgeous sets and costumes (here by Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowlands), new orchestrations, and supporting roles aside, LES MISERABLES is the story of Jean Valjean's unbreakable spirit and Javert's fanatical pursuit of Valjean. Without strong performers as these pivotal characters, the lengthy show would not be worth the time or money.
Luckily, this production boasts a dynamic duo as Valjean and Javert: Peter Lockyer and and Andrew Varela, respectively. Each one in magnificent voice, Lockyer and Varela each inhabit these iconic characters while bringing new depth to their engaging central conflict. As Valjean, Lockyer's "Soliloquy" and "Bring Him Home" rang out with musical and dramatic clarity. Varela's performance of Javert's personal credo, "Stars," and his final soliloquy were also highlights of the production.
The bottom line is this: no matter what my review says about the national tour of Les Miz at DC's National Theatre, tickets will go fast for this holiday run, even as the film version is about to open. You have until December 30 to see it live onstage.
Running Time: 2 hours and 55 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Through December 30, 2012
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Photo Credit: Deen Vanmeer