A Review

Re-Born . . . And As Passionate As Ever

By R. J. Donovan

When I first heard the 25th anniversary tour of "Les Miserables," now at The Opera House, was being "re-imaged," I have to admit I was a bit cautious. The hyphenated descriptive brought visuals of a cut-back, cheapened production to mind. "Les Miz"-Light, so to speak. Happily, that is not the case. The word means exactly what it means. The show has been given an entirely new look.

As presented by producer Cameron Mackintosh, "Les Miserables" has always been a show of grandeur. The spinning revolve in the middle of the stage. Looming barricades sliding into place like giant obstacles. And a magnificent score that filled the theater with its power.

With the original French text by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the show's music is by Schönberg with lyrics from Herbert Kretzmer. And of course, the whole thing is based on the epic novel by Victor Hugo.

For the new version -- directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell -- the story of Jean Valjean being chased across time by the stone-hearted Inspector Javert, has been given a totally different look and feeling. In some ways the creative choices have been smaller, and in some ways, far more powerful. It's still gritty, and still exceptionally effective. In essence, the creators have come up a new way to approach the storytelling.

The major change is Set Designer Matt Kinley's brooding, shadowy artwork -- based on original sketches and paintings done by Victor Hugo -- employed for backdrops. As well, Fifty-Nine Productions has taken it one step further to turn those images into animated projections that, in at least two cases, add a heart-stopping touch.

Yes, the revolve is gone. But the emotion of the experience has been retained, and in some ways refocused by closing in more on the story. When Valjean stands alone on a darkened stage agonizing over how "a new story must begin," it goes right to the heart.

Valjean is played by J. Mark McVey (at left), who's on record as having played the role more than any other human being. As well, this engagement of the show marks his farewell. I've lost count how many times I've seen "Les Miz," starting in London and ending this week. And the actors who've played Valjean have each given the role their personal imprint.

Some Valjean's are massive. Others are like Papa Bears, taking care of those around them. Some burn with silent strength; others are fiery. In the case of McVey, he brings a thoughtful vulnerability. Yes, he's passionate and angry and loyal. But he also questions. And it adds a nice touch. As expected, he presents a beautiful rendition of "Bring Him Home" (above) during which the audience was so mesmerized you could have heard a pin drop.

As the story goes, Jean Valjean begins the evening as a prisoner about to be given his release after 19 years of hard labor. His crime was stealing a loaf of bread.

From prisoner he goes on to become an honest man, establish a business and become Mayor of his town. And when one of his former workers, Fantine, winds up on the skids and dies, he vows to take care of the woman's young daughter, Cosette, as his own. The child grows into a woman and falls in love with a student revolutionary, all while protesters are fighting injustice. And as mentioned above, through all of this, Valjean is being hunted by Inspector Javert, who always seems to be lurking in the shadows.

One moment that's been completely changed is the death of Gavroche, the young boy who fights on the barricade with the revolutionaries. In the original staging, he bravely ventures to the other side of the barricade to scoop up much-needed ammunition from the dead in the streets. This was one of the moments when the revolve came into play. The barricades swung around, you saw the little guy cautiously climbing among the bodies, only to be shot before your eyes.

Now, with no spinning stage, Gavroche scampers over the top of the barricades and disappears as the battle continues. Then a massive shot rings out, accompanied by a single beam of brilliant light (signifying a death) that focuses beyond our sight lines. We see nothing, but the imagination makes it more powerful that witnessing the act itself.

As Fantine, Betsy Morgan brings new hues to her big solo "I Dreamed A Dream." It's traditionally presented as a forlorn song of love lost and dreams dashed. However, Morgan gives the number a sense of joy as she remembers what she once had

A similar change comes with "On My Own," sung by Chasten Harmon as Eponine, the scruffy street waif daughter of the innkeepers, The Thenardiers. Again, the song is usually a very sad exercise in describing the love the character desperately wants but will never have. Harmon brings a sense of happiness to the beginning of the number, which sets up a stark contrast when she delves into the depths of the anguish she faces.

Javert is played with dark anger by Andrew Varella. It's sometimes difficult to understand him, both singing and speaking, however he does a stunning job with his solo "Stars" (at left)-- to the extent that the spontaneous applause began long before he'd let go of the song's final soaring note.

The staging of Javert's Soliloquy-suicide is also new, and it's not only emotional, but spellbinding as you ponder how the effect is achieved.

The cast is filled with proud and strong voices, including Jeremy Hays as Enjolras, who leads "Can You Hear The People Sing," and Max Quinlan as Marius, who's heartbreaking in "Empty Chairs & Empty Tables" (again, with compelling staging).

A favorite spot in the show remains "A Heart Full Of Love," which I always refer to as the Love Trio. The number is shared by Cosette (Julie Benko), Marius and Eponine, and it's as beautiful as it is crushing.

"One Day More" (at left) which ends the first act, has been given a new look that leads to goose bumps. Normally, the company assumes a stationary one-step forward, one-step back march during the number. In this new staging, the animated projections propel the group as it marches down the streets of Paris to its fate.

The other interesting change comes when Valjean escapes the barricades. He's dragging the unconscious body of Marius, who he's only just realized is in love with his daughter, into the safety of the sewers. As the two actors move along, the projections take us from the street, down and through the creepy catacombs of the underground maze. Very effective.

And who can resist the final moments of the show when Valjean greets death by softly reminding us that "to love another person is to see the face of God." There was nary a dry eye in the house.

Bottom line, if you've seen "Les Miz" before, your memories may initially resist the adjustments. However, once you fall into the story itself, you'll find the experience to be as emotionally satisfying as ever. And perhaps, a little surprising as well.

"Les Miserables " is at The Boston Opera House through April 1. For information, call 1-800-982-2787.

-- Production Photos: Deen van Meer / "Bring Him Home" by Paul Kolnik

-- OnStage Boston




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