Les Misérables

Andrew Varela
Les Misérables the musical is a neat little package. There is the core classic story of justice and injustice, love and loss, life and death. The score is melodic and memorable; musical phrases come back over and over to build a familiarity even on first listen. The lyrics are straightforward and sentimental. The characters are flawed and relatable. Of course, there are imperfections, nits to be picked. For some theatregoers, the flaws are at the forefront; for others, the sweeping, emotional package obliterates the flaws. You probably know where you stand on this.

To get the credits out of the way, the book is by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, music by Schönberg; lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer; original French text by Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and additional material by James Fenton. The musical based on the Victor Hugo novel began in France, with a brief run at the Palais des Sports in Paris, but it really took off when Cameron Mackintosh produced an English version in London in 1985. The critics were less than pleased, but the public would have none of that. Though the original Broadway run closed in 2003 after 6680 performances, the London production, with a couple of transfers, continues to this day. There have been numerous productions and tours, it is now a popular high school musical, and the recently released feature film appears to be a financial and popular success.

After three U.S. tours that followed the original design, a fourth tour started up in 2010. This tour has abandoned some of the familiar elements, like the turntable, and modified others, like the now-stationary barricade, and there is a considerable use of projections. It seems freshened and updated, without sacrificing the things that those who love the show expect (although I do think the sacrifices made due to the change in the barricade are unfortunate).

The story has several parts, and it spans some 16 years. When it begins, Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyer) has spent 19 years in prison, five years for the original offense of stealing a loaf of bread and the rest for multiple attempts to escape. He sets out to build a life for himself, but his circumstances make that difficult. When he is taken in by the Bishop of Digne (James Zannelli), he is given not only food and a bed but a conscience and a purpose. In one whirlwind scene change after another, we see Valjean achieve success and build a new life (under a new identity) more than once, as he is relentlessly followed by police inspector Javert (Andrew Varela) who originally paroled him. Both men are tormented, and only one finds peace.

With the exception cited above (spoiler: with the new barricade, we don't see Gavroche's demise; we only hear him, and Enjolras' iconic dying position takes place on a cart instead of across the barricade), the new production design is a success. The projections (Fifty-Nine Productions) add depth and detail, and the overall set structure is so massive and fills the stage so completely (where perhaps it couldn't before, due to the turntable), it's almost unbelievable that it is a touring set. Set design is credited to Matt Kinley, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo.

The touring cast consists of accomplished singing actors. Lockyer is all in, right from the start (he looks a little like the film Valjean, Hugh Jackman, in the first scene where the prisoners are rowing, not breaking rock as they did in earlier productions), showing the strength as well as the heart of Jean Valjean. His voice is perfect for the role. But Varela is even more impressive. His Javert isn't internalized like Russell Crowe's in the film (whose is?); he successfully evokes the stoic man's rigidity and, eventually, his doubt. And his vocal working is the strongest I've heard in this role. The scene work between the two leading men is superb, and Varela's "Stars" is extraordinary.

The rest of the cast are strong, especially in their singing: Genevieve Leclerc as Fantine, Briana Carlson-Goodman as Eponine, Lauren Wiley as Cosette, Devin Ilaw as Marius, Jason Forbach as Enjolras. Shawna M. Hamic is a hoot as Madame Thénardier, and Timothy Gulan is all clown as her monsieur.

The considerable-sized orchestra, under the direction of Lawrence Goldberg, gives the soaring score its due (there are new orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke), and I'm sure many hearts leapt at the first notes, along with mine.

Les Miserable at the Benedum Center through January 27. or tickets and performance information, visit Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. For more information on the tour visit www.lesmis.com/us/.

See the current Schedule of Pittsburgh Theatre.

-- Ann Miner

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