Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Change isn't always easy to accept, especially for things that we hold near and dear to us. Seeing a different staging of a well-known show that's always been presented in a certain way can be quite an adjustment, but can bring to light new nuances, meaning and appreciation. Thus is the case with the national tour of Les Misérables, currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati. While the direction, orchestrations, and design elements may be new, the musical remains an engaging tale that elicits deep emotions from audiences due to its moving story, glorious songs, and a talented cast.
Les Misérables is a musical adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel of the same name 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 from the stigma connected to that of an ex-convict. After he is shown mercy by a priest who has the power to send him back to prison, Valjean dedicates 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 a tale of Christian morality are only a few of the elements contained in Hugo's book that are effectively transferred to the stage by creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schõnberg. The fact that so many characters are sufficiently developed is no small accomplishment in itself.
Les Misérables is the best example of the "all-sung pop opera" style that dominated the 1980s and 1990s on Broadway. The score, with music by Claude-Michel Schõnberg 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 some melodies are repeated too often for some tastes, there are numerous distinct examples of wonderful music and skilled lyrics to provide sufficient variation.
The task of bringing the many aspects of the original staging together was accomplished by original directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn. For this tour, the direction is reconceived by Laurence Connor and James Powell and is a departure in many ways from the initial version. This is a grittier and smaller Les Misérables. The changes are likely to be jarring at times to longtime fans of the show, but refreshing and more personal in many ways as well. Some scenes are definite improvements, while others aren't quite as effective, but the overall effect is still that of a fluid, efficient, and theatrically thrilling presentation of the material. The original orchestrations by John Cameron have been tweaked by Chris Jahnke, with some notable alterations. Though the 15-piece orchestra under the direction of conductor Kevin Stites sounds great, fans will note some different (faster) tempos to some songs and even some slight melodic variations at times as well.
Peter Lockyer is a touching and extremely well-sung Jean Valjean. He shows a distinct and apt change in his characterization before and after Valjean's redemption, and conveys a convincing emotional arc. As Javert, the policeman who pursues the convict throughout his life, Andrew Varela is appropriately authoritative and a strong singer. Betsy Morgan is an earthy, everyday woman as Fantine, and provides first-rate vocals. CCM graduate Max Quinlan (a passionate Marius) and Lauren Wiley (an endearing and youthful Cosette) sing exquisitely and have great chemistry as the young lovers. Understudy Nadine Malouf portrays Eponine as a conflicted tomboy stuck between anger (at her lot in life) and despair (over not gaining the romantic attention of Marius), and sings capably. Portraying the Thenardiers, Timothy Gulan and Beth Kirkpatrick are a laugh riot. The rest of the cast, including featured actors Jason Forbach (Enjolras), Joshua Colley (Gavroche), and Erin Cearlock (Young Cosette), give worthwhile performances as well.
Most design aspects of the show for this tour are very different as well. Gone is the turntable that is so closely associated with the piece. Instead, set designer Matt Kinley uses traditional set pieces mixed with projections to provide a handsome visual setting inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. The projections are effective (especially in the sewer scene) and thankfully aren't overused. However, oddly enough, the projections of the year which used to occur each time a significant lapse of time occurs are now gone, and hamper the understanding of that passage of time. The stark lighting by Paule Constable is theatrical and adds to the gritty take on the material. But, other than the opening scene (which now takes place on a prison ship), the lighting doesn't help identify the singer very often, which is a detriment in some of the larger ensemble numbers. The costumes are again by Andreane Neofitou (with additional help from Christine Rowland) and add greatly to the theatricality of the show.
Newcomers to Les Misérables are going to experience a wonderful show which millions have enjoyed before them. Previous converts are going to find a different (though not particularly better or worse) look to the material, and may or may not adjust to the changes. But the quality of the score and story remain intact, and the cast for this tour is likewise first-rate.
The national tour of Les Misérables continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through May 13, 2012, and tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816. For more information on the tour, visit www.lesmis.com/us-tour/.-- Scott Cain