Les Miserables tops its own reputation for spectacle
In 1980s, British pop-spectacle musicals by (the Right Honorable) Andrew Lloyd Webber dominated stages in London and the U.S. But the biggest such hit emerged from France: Les Misérables – affectionately known as Les Miz. It’s still going strong. The 25th anniversary touring company opened at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall Tuesday night. In 2010, the London production observed its 10,000th continuous performance.
In contrast to Webber’s patter about cats, chess, phantoms and super stars from Argentina and Jerusalem, Les Miz takes in all the great themes of theater – love, death, justice, revolution, redemption. Victor Hugo’s classic novel explores these issues as well as any other novel written. French lyricist Herbert Kretzmer and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg created Les Misérables in 1980, five years before the substantially reworked English version opened in London.
Producer extraordinaire Cameron Mackintosh (who produced the Webber musicals as well) mixed in singing children, abusive but foolish tavern keepers, singing prostitutes, sweatshops, urban street scenes and Paris sewers. The result is epic, thought provoking, spectacular, enduring theater. Public television uses Les Miz to encourage viewers to open their wallets. Touring productions return to Milwaukee every few years.
To celebrate 25 years, Mackintosh has put up a new production. How is it different?
It’s on steroids. The big feature of the original comprised two enormous jigsaw pieces that merging from left and right to form a 20 foot high pile of tables, chairs, barrels, ladders and other debris — the barricade where young students took their last stand in a failed revolution. In the new production, many scenes involve massive moving objects. The most successful is a three-dimensional, four-part, three-story Paris street scape. (The giant barricade merely rolls from the rear of the stage in this production, although it pulls apart as the battle ensues.)
The pace in Act 1 was furious Tuesday night, as everyone seemed to sing at top speed. Songs designed to tear at the heart were quickly replaced by spectacular crowd scenes, leaving plenty to hum but not much time to think.
Fortunately the pace slowed in the second act, which includes now classic songs reflecting upon unrequited love, love found, lives lost and an epic life ended.
Perhaps the ambition of the production is its own limitation. Stagecraft can expand the imagination, but can also stunt it if the spectacle draws attention to itself. In over-amped crowd scenes it is often difficult to tell who is singing. Scenes span two decades in rapid order. In one scene, a larger-than-life courtroom appears at the rear of the stage for a 30 second segment of a longer song.
Several performances stand out from the tumult. Justin Scott Brown, as student revolutionary Marius, and Chasten Harmon, as Eponine (who loves Marius in vain), have rich, full, powerful voices that delivered the emotion. Both Andrew Varela, as Inspector Javert, and Jeremy Hays, as student leader Enjolras, have great voices, but sang with little emotion. That may be appropriate for Inspector Javert, but Enjolras was supposed to be exhorting his colleagues to follow him to death in a futile revolution. The fervor was missing.
Les Miz is a great musical, and this over-produced version does not change that. Everyone should see Les Miz at least once.
Tickets are in short supply for the current run, so do order ahead. Performances are set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 19-24, in Uihlein Hall. Prices start at $25 and vary with time, day and seat location. They are on sale at the Marcus Center Box Office, 929 N. Water St, 414 273-7206, Group orders of 10 or more may be placed by calling 414-273-7121 ext. 210. This Milwaukee engagement of Les Misérables is presented by Broadway Across America- Milwaukee and the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Time Warner Cable Broadway at the Marcus Center Series.