Still Misérables after all these years

Les Misérables by Cameron Mackintosh
Peter Lockyer as Jean Valjean sings “Bring Him Home” in the 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables at the Orpheum Theatre. Below: The Les Miz company ends Act 1 with a rousing “One Day More.” Photos by Deen Van Meer

The 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season is annoying and gratifying, pretty much in equal measure.

You have to give credit to super producer Cameron Mackintosh for even attempting something new with such a tried-and-true money maker as Les Miz. He hired new directors (Laurence Connor and James Powell) and a raft of new designers, including set designer Matt Kinley (whose credit includes “inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo) and lighting designer Paule Constable. They 86-ed the turntable, such a memorable (and thematically important) element of the original Royal Shakespeare Company production adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Napier, and added that now inescapable 21st-century plague, projections.

This musical war horse is certainly refreshed if not necessarily strengthened. The show was special when it opened in London in 1985 (the original French production was all the way back in 1980) because it was an epic story enlivened by a pop score with operatic ambitions. The fluid, cinematic staging allowed a large chunk of Hugo’s massive novel to live on stage, and the Schönberg-Kretzmer score, especially its plaintive ballads and rousing anthems, would have captured an audience’s attention even on a bare stage with little to no flag waving.

As part of the British invasion, which also included Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miz helped usher in an era of deadly serious musical theater that was lushly produced and adored by audiences. More than 25 years later, these musicals tend to feel dated by their extravagance, hobbled by their bloat. And that’s certainly true of this revised production, even though it’s scaled down from the original. There’s a lot of flash and speed and movement, with the heart only occasionally visible thanks to some strong performances and some moving musical moments.

Les Misérables by Cameron Mackintosh, opening night November 28 2010, Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Dr., Millburn New Jersey

But first a word on those projections. When the back wall of the stage is dark and stormy and full of ominous images that look like woodcuts damaged by fire, all is well. But several times the projections sink to computer animation, and the stage is suddenly Les Miz: The Video Game. It happens when hero Jean Valjean, employing his super human strength rescues a man from a runaway cart (the animation happens during the “runaway” part). It happens again during the stirring Act 1 closer “One More Day.” When the revolutionary zealots begin marching, the street behind them begins to move, making them look like cartoon characters and diminishing an otherwise stirring number. For me, though, the worst video projection was a tour through the Paris sewers as Jean Valjean attempts to rescue an injured Marius. The two men stumble through multiple projections as if the designers were anxious to ensure the audience that yes, theater can be 3-D, too! As if it weren’t already in three dimensions.

And though the famous barricade isn’t nearly as impressive as it used to be (and the battle seems especially wan with a few popping light bulbs making the whole barricades pile look like a theme park ride), it’s fine. The inability to see what’s happening on the other side of the barricades means we lose a poignant moment or two, but there are other things going on to compensate.

But I really did miss the turntable. There is a song in the show, after all, called “Turning,” and the whole notion of everything coming around again and again is central to Hugo’s theme, so the turntable really was more than just a slick way to keep the action spinning. I especially missed it during “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which is performed with neither chairs nor tables, empty or otherwise (it is, instead, performed with candles). It’s funny to miss part of the set, but there you go. The new set designs, heavy on shabby shutters on a grand scale, are sufficient, but now Les Miz feels more like a regional production and less like a Broadway legend.

By far the worst “improvement” happens during the death of Javert. Here you have a fantastic actor – Andrew Varela, whose earlier solo, “Stars,” nearly stopped the show – giving another great turn on “Soliloquy.” And when he makes a decisive move, in rush the special effects, which involve projections (naturally) and a flying rig that is so unnecessary it’s comical. Suddenly Les Miz becomes Wicked in miniature. The truth is that Varela needs no effects other than a spotlight and his wonderful voice.

The performances are generally, fine though the women tend to have a more contemporary vocal bent than the men (which is not always great in a period piece). Peter Lockyer is a powerful Jean Valjean, though as the show progresses, his age makeup lends a Kabuki air to the performance. Timothy Gulan is an iffy Thenardier who is constantly upstaged by his much funnier wife played by Shawna M. Hamic. The young lovers Marius (Max Quinlan) and Cosette (Lauren Wiley) have very pretty voices but lack stage presence, but then again, their characters don’t really give them much to work with. Briana Carlson-Goodman’s Eponine seems like she’s visiting from a shiny, happy sitcom and had the makeup department smudge up her face to help her get into character as a Parisian street urchin circa the 1830s, and it doesn’t quite work

Even with all the annoyances, there’s no denying that Les Miz can still pack a wallop. When those big voices (played at ear-splitting volume at the Orpheum) join together to sing songs like “At the End of the Day” or “One Day More” it’s great musical theater storytelling. Beyond the bells and whistles is a story of redemption and kindness and love in a truly ugly world, and that registers, with the turntable or without.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Les Misérables continues through Aug. 26 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$150. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

1 thought on “Still Misérables after all these years

  1. Excellently written review. Right on the money. Wish I had found this sooner! The SF Chronicle review was way off the mark, and not nearly as eloquent or well informed. Kudos and thank you!

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