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A CurtainUp DC Review
Fortunately I saw the 1986 Kennedy Center production and had read the book long before because the Prologue in the current version is very hard to comprehend due to over-amplification and the speed with which the performers sing. Apart from prompting the desire to throttle the sound engineers, this production should please a younger generation new to the piece as much as those of us who know the story, the show and the lyrics by heart. At the performance I attended, by the second act, either the sound engineers got their act together or the ear adjusted to the decibel level.
Claude-Michel Schonberg's melodic poperatic music and Herbert Kretzmer's sentimental lyrics are as lusciously romantic and moving the umpteenth time around as they were when the show was new. The Kennedy Center Opera House does well (when not drowning out the singers) and most of the voices -- particularly J. Mark McVey as Jean Valjean, Chaston Harmon's Eponine and Betsy Morgan's Fantine -- are excellent.
The song "Little People," endearingly sung by Ethan Paul Khusidman as Gavroche seems shorter than previously. For comic relief, Shawna M. Hamic deserves the laughs she gets, particularly in the wedding scene, while her stage husband, Thenadier, is played with much vulgarity and sitcom timing by Richard Vida. Leader of the student rebellion of 1832, the shaggy-haired Jeremy Hays makes a strong impression as Enjolras. His commanding presence and gorgeous voice bring tremendous energy to the first act finale, "One More Day."
Where this production differs from those of the past is in the way it looks. The turntable is gone and scenes change from the wings in fairly rapid succession. Set designer Matt Kinley, inspired by Victor Hugo's dark charcoal and ink drawings, provides backdrops that suggest the soot and grime of factories and polluted city living with an occasional cupola à la Sacre Coeur in the background. But what is truly innovative are the projections against the theater's back wall by Fifty-Nine Productions, the UK-based film and new media company specializing in integrating moving images into live performance, such as their highly successful War Horse.
When Jean Valjean carries over his shoulder the wounded Marius through an all-too-real sewer beneath the streets of Paris, the scene is so realistic and so cinematic that the audience feels as though it is being pulled into a vortex. Similarly when Javert makes his fateful jump from a bridge into the river below, we, the audience, feel as though we are watching him sink further and further into the deep. Both images are brilliant coups de théatre.
Not everything is easy to see in this production. Lighting Designer Paule Constable makes the stage so dark that the audience does not always know the details of what's happening or who is singing. Presumably directors Laurence Connor and James Powell made that part of the aesthetic.
Perfect or imperfect, Les Mis goes on "One Day More," if not one century more. And no wander. It was and probably always will be a great show.
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