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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Purists should not panic at the idea of the widely adored musical being newly envisioned. Just don't expect to see the famous/familiar story unfold on a turntable. I'm not inferring that any serious tampering has been done to what has become a classic of modern musical theatre. Some judicious cutting has evidently taken place over the years as the original production clocked in at three hours and 15 minutes. The Broadway revival ran exactly three hours and the current production runs two hours and 45 minutes.
If it was a little startling to see this musical revived on Broadway in 2006 only three and one half years after the original production has closed after amassing a total of 6,680 performances. It isn't as startling to report tha the current production has a striking new look. For starters there are the extraordinary scenic and image designs created by Matt Kinley that are inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, yes he who wrote the book. Hugo was, indeed, a talented visual artist who chose to keep his paintings from public view lest they draw attention away from his literary works.
Undoubtedly you will awed by the display of scenic designs, slides and moving projections, all of which suggest Hugo's technique of using charcoal, ink and soot, even coffee. Kinley has honored the mostly lost work of Hugo with his dark and moody, mostly colorless, designs that evoke Paris's darkest streets — the factories, smoke stacks, even its foreboding sewers. These are enhanced by Paule Constable's atmospheric lighting. But this is not a case of leaving a show whistling the scenery. Although this is a touring production, nothing about it looks on-the-cheap, especially the physical production, including the obligatory blockade. The costume designs by Andreane Neofitour, particularly for the wedding feast, are an eyeful.
This hugely successful musical adaptation of Hugo's sprawling 1862 novel is evidently saying/singing something to a lot of people. Be assured that this darkly vivid 19th century operatically-essayed dramatic tableaux framed by the student rebellion of 1832 in post-Revolution France, courtesy of composers Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (with additional material by James Fenton) remains, to the best of my memory, just as convoluted and complexly constructed as ever.
The most gratifying news is that African-American Lawrence Clayton is giving a dramatically convincing and vocally impressive performance as the fugitive Frenchman Jean Valjean. Clayton, a husky man with a vocal range that decisively spans the octaves of "Bring Him Home." He empowers his defining aria "Who Am I."
Andrew Varela is not about to even insinuate he has a heart as the paranoid mission-obsessed police inspector Javert. Varela is a veteran of the original "Les Miserables" on Broadway who also played a variety of roles toward the end of the engagement. His familiarity with the material doesn't keep him from giving an excitingly individualized edge to the character.
The supporting cast is unquestionably up to the demands of the often angst-driven arias. It is easy to see why the public continues to respond to the impassioned tenacity of the music as well as to the unsettling turbulence of the times. No matter how familiar the score is, it is hard to resist the rousing anthem "Do You Hear the People Sing" and the romantic declaration"A Heart Full of Love" by Cosette (Jenny Latimer), Marius (Jon Fletcher, who replaced the ailing Scott Brown on opening night) and Eponine (Chasten Harmon), as well as the stimulating "One Day More" sung by the company at the end of Act I. It isn't just his head of blonde curls that makes Jeremy Hays stand out as the feisty and formidable Enjoiras, the leader of the workers' and students' uprising. The ill-fated Fantine is played by Betsy Morgan who conveys the inherent poignancy of the role especially in the heartbreaking aria"I Dreamed a Dream."
That Les Miserables, under the laudable co-direction of Laurence Connor and James Powell, manages to both wallow in and swallow up its melodramatic excesses without making the audience cringe is quite remarkable. And that we are emotionally moved by it is even more remarkable. Parody only rears its grotesque shape in the form of Thenardier (Michael Kostroff) and Madame Thenardier (Shawna M. Hamic) as the terrifyingly mercenary innkeeper and his wife. But we are also grateful for their comedic restraint. Would that the fourteen musicians in the pit under the direction of Peter White would use a little more restraint as they often overpower the singers. But perhaps this is the fault of the sound engineer.
The path and moral transformation of ex-convict Jean Valjean as he is relentlessly pursued over the years by his nemesis Javert, all the while protecting and bringing hope to those he loves, is fraught with despair and danger. But through all of Les Miserables we see the virtue of Valjean's irrepressible need for redemption and his unwavering resolve to live a better life.
There is no denying that Les Miserables has become a permanent fixture in musical theatre in the same way that Carmen and La Boheme are in the world of opera. And as this revival assures us, it is able to make the rounds even without a turntable.
For Curtainu' London critic Lizzie Loveridge's review of this celebratory revival's first stop go here.