Much has been made of the fact that the national tour of Les Misérables is a new production, in honor of the show’s 25th anniversary. I went with some trepidation, having loved the original production, which I saw several times over the last two decades. I worried that the retooling of this beloved classic fell into the category of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it . I am happy to report that the new production is even more vividly theatrical than the original.
Les Misérables is the kind of music theatre (dare I call it an opera?) that a composer like Verdi would have appreciated. It tells passionate love stories in the context of revolution and the fight for personal freedom—not unlike many of Verdi’s early efforts. From sweet love songs to heart-quickening anthems, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg makes clever use of musical motives and contrapuntal ensembles. This is opera in the popular idiom—just like early Verdi.
Victor Hugo’s story is amazingly contemporary. An escaped criminal, Jean Valjean (arrested for stealing bread to survive), is pursued by the arrogant and judgmental Inspector Javert, who operates from the fundamentalist position that he alone knows God’s will. They become embroiled with a group of young dissidents eager to right the wrongs of their society and correct its economic disparities—not unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement. Hugo is a fierce social critic.
The spectacle is intact, and even enhanced by the cunning use of projections inspired by Hugo's paintings, but the production takes the story very seriously. Amidst all the pageantry, it captures the heart of Hugo’s novel, which is a story of Christian redemption. This is a serious take on God and the nature of salvation, and the production embraces it in deeply personal and emotional ways.
If only the performances had been directed with the same finesse as the production. There is a lack of subtlety across the board. Try as he might, J. Mark McVey could not fully realize the character of Valjean. His voice did not encompass the full range of the role, but even worse, his performance was so stagey and mannered that it was off-putting. He also lacked the kind of charisma the character needs to command the stage.
As Javert, Andrew Varela brought a massive black bass that is thrilling to listen to. But he played the role as too stereotypically villainous, robbing the character of his ultimate tragedy. Max Quinlan cut a dashing figure as Marius, the romantic lead, and he brought a ringing tenor. As his love interest, Jenny Latimer was no match. Her soprano was thin and shrill on top and she had major problems with intonation. As the woman Marius spurned, Chasten Harmon’s voice became course when pushed, but at softer dynamics was deeply expressive. Her death scene was quite moving.
The weakest links in the show are the characters of the scheming innkeeper Thenardier and his wife. Their over-the top-conception is clearly designed as comic relief, but provides it in such a crude way that it cheapens the whole enterprise. The performances by Richard Vida and Shawna M. Hamic don’t help matters, either.
I can’t close without reflecting on an unease I have with the whole show—one that applies to all its major versions. I adore Les Misérables , but it encompasses an uncomfortable contradiction. It’s a story that advocates radical social change, but plays to audiences able to afford tickects over $100. I wonder if in all the music and theatrics, the true revolutionary message isn’t obscured or lost.
Les Misérables runs through December 18 at the Orpheum Theatre.