Also see Tim's review of The Happiness Lecture
Les Miz is one of the best examples of epic storytelling in all theater. Victor Hugo's gripping tale of Jean Valjean, the convict who undergoes degradation and redemption, merits no less than a grand treatment, and it gets it here. Yet I've always found it frustrating that so many of the characterizations are painted in simple, broad strokes, although that's probably necessary to get the story told in less than three hours. Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics have their share of clunky rhymes, and Claude-Michel Schönberg's melodies vary from the timeless ("I Dreamed a Dream") to the time-filling ("Drink With Me") - yet the use of recurring musical themes is very effective and adds to the show's cumulative power. It's impossible to hear an impassioned chorus like the one at the Walnut singing the rousing "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and not be moved.
Instead of that turntable, set designer Todd Edward Ivins relies more on a set of scaffolds that enter from either side of the stage. Most of the time this works fine, but there are some moments where the new approach doesn't work. In the original production, the ensemble sang "At the End of the Day" while making entrances and exits on the turntable; each actor got to hold the audience's attention at center stage while singing his or her line. At the Walnut, however, the actors simply sit immobile in front of the scaffolding. Without distinctive lighting to focus the audience's attention, it's hard to figure out who's singing which line.
Fortunately, mistakes like that don't happen frequently in director Mark Clements' excellent production. Entrances and exits are often made through the audience, adding a bit of excitement, and the scene changes are done swiftly. The 14-piece orchestra has a fairly full sound under conductor Douglass G. Lutz.
Hugh Panaro is superb in the lead, with a dynamic voice and an ability to convey all the anguish and courage of Jean Valjean. Josh Young nearly matches his authority (and vocal power) as the rebel Marius, and the show's best female singer, Christina DeCicco, is completely adorable as the spunky waif Eponine. On the villainous side, Scott Greer gives a zesty twist to the scheming Thenardier, ably abetted by Dawn Spence as his wife.
Other performances, however, were not quite as interesting. Paul Schoeffler is surprisingly bloodless as Inspector Javert, the policeman who hounds Valjean. Jessica Bogart, Julie Craig and Jeffrey Coon failed to make much impact as (respectively) Fantine, Cosette and Enjolras. And Dante Mignucci, the child actor who played Gavroche at the performance I attended, did not enunciate well enough to make many of his lines intelligible.
Still, this is a very winning production of Les Miz, and it should be counted as a major success for the Walnut. If it doesn't make the material seem fresh (and at this point, I'm not sure if any production could) it's still an excellent production of a musical that redefined what a big show is all about: big spectacle, big emotions, and a big heart.
Les Misérables runs through August 3, 2008 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $70, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.