by Chris Davis
The man who wrote Les Miserables wasn't much of a musician himself and was thrilled when he finally learned to peck out a bit of Beethoven on the piano with one finger. But Victor Hugo's poems and novels have inspired more than 1000 musical compositions in addition to the longrunning—and recently re-tooled—musical that will be visiting the Orpheum through September 18. If he hadn't hidden his paintings, drawings and other artworks from the world for fear that they might distract from his work as an author it's distinctly possible that Hugo, whose gorgeous, heavily-inked pages are sometimes washed in coffee stains for dramatic effect, might have inspired thousands more. The great Romantic poet was only a competent draftsman but he had a knack for moody composition and the work he left behind (there's a LOT of it) is powerful, and predictive of later artistic movements like surrealism and abstract expressionism. Although only a few of Hugo's actual painting's have been lifted to provide backdrops for the redesigned, 25th-anniversary staging of Les Miserables, they serve as an inspiration throughout, creating a dangerously rhythmic environment befitting this grand story of social injustice. Fans of the show will probably miss the turntable stage and some of the original production's more sensational moments while detractors will still giggle when all the rote flag-waving starts but Matt Kinley's new design beautifully recasts everything to human scale, de-emphasizing the spectacle and placing the actors in a hotter, whiter spotlight. If anything, the work has become an even greater study in contrast, and more powerful as a result. Those who think they know the show well may be surprised by all the little discoveries that a redesign can bring about.
My chief complaints with the musical adaptation of Les Miserables all stem from one basic problem: there's too much story to tell effectively in a 3-hour musical. Rich characters are never allowed to develop and many plot elements are truncated to the point of confusion. It's a perfect example of something that is conversely too much and not enough. And I've always felt that the show's original creative team made up for any shortcomings with cheap, hyper-emotional images: Fighters hanging from the barricades, a brave and defiant child gunned down, etc. Now these seemingly iconic images have been eliminated. The upside: They no longer upstage the story. Better still, the emphasis on the singers' technical proficiency has also been shifted in favor of a more human, emotionally honest (And still quite strong vocally) approach to the material. It creates the illusion of subtlety in a show that doesn't have time for such luxuries.
Not all of the spectacle has been downsized. Javert's death scene is something to see as the bridge beneath him falls away along with all the other physical set elements and the unyielding police officer plunges backward into the swirling darkness of the water "below." The visual perfectly reflects the mind of a man who has made decisions he can only escape by making the one decision he can't escape. But as grand as the image may be it's not the technical wizardry the audience applauds at this moment, it's the vocal performance of Andrew Varelaan, an actor who has squeezed every drop of juice from this iconic if necessarily underdeveloped role.
The same can be said for J. Mark McVey, who plays the story's protagonist, Jean Valjean, a nominal thief (he stole bread to save a starving relative) who can never outrun his past. McVey is the rare actor who can Make the show's heart-crushing falsetto passages sound positively manly.
I've been known to complain about the modern mega-musical, and Les Miserables was certainly a major part of what, to my mind, became a self-destructive trend in commercial theater. But the show's text and score were always a cut above cloying contemporaries like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, and Phantom of the Opera. If nothing else this streamlined revival highlights all of the reasons why the martial horn blasts of Les Miserables are likely to be heard for years to come.
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