For many theater fans under the age of 35, Les Miserables is the show that sparked their interest in musicals. The show, which announced this week that it will close on Broadway in March 2003 after sixteen years on the boards, is probably the most influential musical of the last quarter century. For audiences around the country, the current national tour offers an opportunity to see this show in its original (almost) glory, and is not to be missed. The show plays currently at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio and is in fine form.
Les Miserables is a musical adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel and follows the life of Jean Valjean in early 1800s France. After serving nineteen years in prison for stealing some bread, Valjean breaks parole to live a life free of the stigma connected to that of an ex-convict. When he is shown mercy by a priest who has the power to send him back to prison, Valjean gives his life to God. The remainder of the complex story follows the character as he shows mercy and kindness in return to others, such as Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Javert.
This musical is a gripping and emotional tale of redemption and is epic storytelling at its best. Love stories, social and historical commentary, and Christian morality are only a few of the things contained in Hugo's book that are effectively transformed to the stage by creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. The fact that so many characters are sufficiently developed is no small accomplishment in itself. The original version ran nearly three hours and fifteen minutes. However, all U.S. productions were trimmed a few years ago to three hours flat to save on overtime costs. Though the excised portions are missed by devotees of the show, the cuts in no way hurt the production.
Les Miserables followed the style initiated by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, now described as the "all-sung pop opera." The score, with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, has produced modern classics such as "Bring Him Home," "Own My Own," and "I Dreamed a Dream." The soaring melodies beautifully match the characters and settings, and stir emotions within audience members. Though tunes are repeated too often for some tastes, at three hours there are plenty of wonderful music and skilled lyrics to go around. Superb orchestrations by John Cameron add to the intensity of the songs as well.
The casting of Les Miserables is essential to its overall effectiveness and this national tour boasts an all-around marvelous group of performers. Randal Keith throws himself into the large role of Jean Valjean completely. His beautiful high tenor easily meets the challenging vocal demands of Valjean, and his performance is reminiscent of Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role in London and New York. As Javert, the policeman who pursues the convict throughout his life, Joseph Mahowald displays a clear, deep singing voice and fully captures Javert's relentless determination. The role of Fantine is passionately sung and acted with depth by Jayne Patterson. Stephen Brian Patterson and Amanda Huddleston sing well and are effective as the young lovers Marius and Cosette, and the Eponine of Jessica-Snow Wilson is the best to have been seen in Cincinnati. As the Thenardiers, Jodi Capeless and Michael Hayward-Jones provide much comic relief. Making the stop in Cincinnati even more meaningful is the fact that seven graduates of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music perform in the company.
The task of bringing the many aspects of this production together was accomplished by Directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn. Telling this complex tale through song in just three hours requires fluid transitions, efficiency of storytelling, and the unique use of many theatrical devices. Caird and Nunn succeeded on every account.
The scenic design by John Napier for Les Miserables revolutionized the craft within theater. The turntable and massive barricade are just two of the pieces that pushed forward the scope of possibilities for sets in musicals. The expert lighting by David Hersey and professionally rendered costumes by Andreane Neofitou also add greatly to the theatricality of the show.
Helped greatly by its top-notch cast, the national tour of Les Miserables is still a testament to great theater on a grand scale. Many others have tried to duplicate the show's success, but few have come close. While the Broadway run will close in the Spring of 2003, the magic that the musical creates is still on display around the country. The musical continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through October 6, 2002, and tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.