For the eighth time, Les Misérables, the Alain Boublil (Book), Claude-Michel Schönberg (Book, Music), Herbert Kretzmer (lyrics) musical based on the classic Victor Hugo novel, rolls into town. The story is well known: we follow petty thief Jean Valjean as he is relentlessly pursued by policeman Javert though mid-19th century France, through historical events - the plague and political revolution ("not the big famous one, a little later one you thought you didn't know anything about" - Forbidden Broadway) - and changes in Valjean's life as well as in those who become important to him. This musicalized version of the story is sung-through, and most of the songs render the story informatively, intensifying the heavy emotional aspects. A lot happens in the three-hour piece, as time and events spin (literally) by, making transitions occasionally dizzying, but it's a great ride and an involving, fulfilling show.
Sets (John Napier) and costumes (Andreane Neofitou) seem to be consistent with previous touring productions, and all are in fine shape (though scenery movement is still noisy at times). What changes from company to company are the performances, and this company boasts some fine ones. Randal Keith (who appeared in the show's 2001 Pittsburgh appearance) continues to fully inhabit the role of beleaguered Valjean. Keith shows no sign of neglecting the commitment to character, though he has performed the role many times - on several tours, on Broadway, in China and Korea. His vocal performance is exemplary, rich and most glorious to hear. The roar of appreciation the audience provided for him at curtain call was genuine and well deserved. Understudy Trent Blanton (recently appearing memorably as Edward Rutledge in CLO's 1776) brings the appropriate menace, fervor and inner conflict to the role of Javert. He also sings very well, in a powerful presentation.
The women's roles are evenly covered by Tonya Dixon (Fantine), Melissa Lyons (Eponine) and Leslie Henstock (Cosette). All provide solid performances. As the student revolutionaries, Enjolras and Marius, John-Andrew Clark and Adam Jacobs show the youthful passion of the characters. Jacobs delivers a particularly poignant "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," illustrating the transition of boy to man. Comic relief from all the misery is provided by original Broadway cast member Jennifer Butt as a very hardened and worn-out Madame Thénardier and David Benoit as her husband and partner in crime. Benoit's M. Thénardier is a highlight of this production. In a performance free of Cockney accent (in fact, this production appears to be virtually free of any British accents, and thankfully so), and one in which the vulgarity and the villainousness are mined yet the clownishness is not overplayed, Benoit is a tremendous Thénardier. Add to that a stunning voice (his "Dog Eats Dog" is a real stand out), and you have what is a joy to find in a touring production - a fresh and distinctive take on a familiar character.
Although young actresses Nadine Jacobson and Gabriella Malek provide capable performances as Young Cosette and Eponine, it is eight-year-old Sean Gilbert who absolutely commands the stage with his charming and dedicated portrayal of young soldier Gavroche.
An essential part of every musical is the instrumental support, and this orchestra, conducted by R. Andrew Bryan, stands up to the responsibility and fills the theatre with rich music without overpowering the performers. Lighting and microphone cue glitches not withstanding, the light (David Hersey) and sound (Andrew Bruce/Autograph) contributions are notable.
Les Misérables continues through Sunday, January 16 at the Benedum. For performance and ticket information, call (412) 456-6666 or visit www.pgharts.org.