Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Les Miserables 25th Anniversary Production at the Kennedy Center

Les Miserables is probably the most critically acclaimed musical of the large multi-million dollar productions that were the hallmark of musical theater in the 1980's.   Known for its large cast, complicated set on a then state-of-the-art computerized turntable, and beautiful symphonic score (with electronic flourishes), Les Miserables enjoyed a long run on Broadway that saw it become the third longest running show in Broadway history. Les Miserables continues its original run in London where it opened in 1985.  It has had numerous national tours, international productions, and was famously filmed in concert form for its 25th anniversary at London's O2 Arena.  

Given the immense scale of the original production, Les Miserables has been ripe for re-interpretation.   An acclaimed scaled-down production was performed to critical acclaim at Arlington, Virginia's Signature Theater in 2008.    Yet, for a 25th anniversary National Tour, it seems wise to provide a larger sense of scale and scope, yet find ways to streamline the behemoth production values of the original design of the show.    For that, Cameron Mackintosh Productions turned to directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, who staged this current production at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey.    Trimming about 40 minutes from the running time and substantially redesigning the sets and lighting, this Les Miserables is a taut production, that does not feel as though anything substantial to the core of the original script has been lost.  Most of what has been cut are superfluous and repetitive portions of the sung-through dialogue.  The result is a brisk pace that does not feel too rushed and a satisfying emotional punch that is worthy of those who have fond memories of the original production.

The new set design by Matt Kinley which is inspired by the paintings of the novel's author, Victor Hugo gives a gritty yet beautiful sense of time and place.   When coupled by the lighting design of Paule Constable this becomes a Les Miserables that emphasizes the living conditions of the poor and working class citizens of France.    Andreane Neofitou's costumes, while complimentary of the original designs due to their need to be period accurate, have some nuances that provide a fresh perspective on the characters.   The score, with new orchestrations by Chris Jahnke and additional orchestrations by Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker has been reduced from the original 22 musicians to 15, yet under the direction of Robert Bilig they still provide the scope that is needed for this epic tale.

The staging by the directors, Mr. Connor and Mr. Powell is overall very effective.   The use of the projections adds in giving some depth to certain scenes such as the escape through the Paris sewers.   Yet you can tell that the production was designed on a stage with less depth than the Kennedy Center Opera House.   Some of the action feels unnaturally forced forward and there is a bit too much of having the ensemble line up at the front of the stage and dramatically confront the audience.   Once is effective, twice is okay, three or more is boring.

The only other criticism is one of sound levels.  As are all musical productions these days, the actors are miked.  The levels of the sound mix are at times set too high, making it too loud for certain moments in the show.   Also, there are times when lyrics are muddied by poor diction.   And sadly, during one song, the confrontation between Valjean and Javert after Fantine's death, their counterpoint singing is a shouting match, instead of the give and take that allows the audience to understand both mens' arguments.

The casting of the production is top notch.  Not a single role is poorly performed.   Chasten Harmon is gritty and sympathetic as Eponine.   Particularly her death, in the beautiful A Little Fall of Rain gains additional poignancy as it is not sung as a pretty duet, but clearly with the pain and agony of someone dying of gunshot wounds.    Jeremy Hays has the right amount of magnetism as Enjolras, the leader of the students.   Betsy Morgan is heartbreaking as the doomed Fantine.   Richard Vida and Shawna M. Hamic are comic in a macabre way as the Thenardiers.   Jenny Latimer has a beautiful soprano voice and is charmingly earnest as the innocent Cosette desperately in love with young Marius.

As Marius, Justin Scott Brown is a revelation.  His Marius has more emotional depth that the usual idealized student and love interest.   Mr. Brown shows a range showing genuine fervor for his friends' beliefs, despair over the events at the doomed barricade and genuine love for  his  beautiful Cosette.

Andrew Varela is menacing as Javert, the policeman who fervently believes that good and evil are black and white and that one can never change.  Mr. Varela uses his strong baritone during his singing of Stars to provide the character's context for the audience and his devastation during his Soliloquy show emotional complexity   It is a testament to the original authors and to Mr. Varela that what could be the  one-note villain of the show is a complex and conflicted man.

J. Mark McVey joins a long line of gentlemen to tackle the difficult role of Jean Valjean.   It requires a herculean effort to sing this part night after night.   Mr. McVey Valjean is strength and pathos.   Particularly in Bring Him Home he gives a soaring performance that takes the audience on Valjean's journey from paroled prisoner to redeemed sinner.  

The 25th Anniversary Production of Les Miserables will be performed at the Kennedy Center Opera House through October 30, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information please visit www.kennedy-center.org.   For additional information on future performances of this national tour please visit www.lesmis.com/ustour/

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