At the Barricade: Jeremy Hays, Max Quinlan and Chasten Harmon in LES MISERABLES
  • Deen van Meer
  • At the Barricade: Jeremy Hays, Max Quinlan and Chasten Harmon in LES MISERABLES

4 stars
out of 5
Broadway Series South/North Carolina Theatre
Through Feb. 19

There’s a certain contradiction when a production celebrates the 25th anniversary of a world-wide musical theater phenomenon by completely discarding the original’s landmark production concept—and then cutting, according to reports, somewhere between 20 and 40 minutes from the show. That, however, is the outcome with the 25th Anniversary Tour of LES MISERABLES which stops at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium this week.

The odd result is a historical production (in more than one sense of the term) that seems entirely focused on the new instead. In addition to new orchestrations and new costumes, an entirely new set design, abetted by a new stage technology, has mandated equally new blocking as well.

Apparently producers Cameron Mackintosh and NETworks Presentations have aimed here for a LES MIS for a new generation. At least, let’s hope so: Those who remember the superlative strengths of the original (whose Raleigh performance we reviewed in Nov. 1997) are unlikely to be convinced that this brisk—or, actually, brusque—version is an improvement.

It’s amazing to consider how much a single element of technical design can influence an entire production. But then, the original version of LES MIS was amazing by almost any measure. Directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn’s brilliant use of scenic designer John Napier’s stage-length turntable repeatedly swept us along with the flow of history. It nimbly threaded us through the veritable urban mazes that the central character, the condemned Jean Valjean, negotiated to elude his nemesis, the implacable Inspector Javert.

Cinematically, that rotating set disclosed the horrors of warfare when it displayed one side of the barricade where the student revolutionaries in the Paris Uprising of 1839 made their last doomed stand—before turning, inexorably, to reveal all that had been laid to waste beyond it. In the midst of these, a number of other scenes shifted, quite literally, from one character’s point of view to another’s. In instance after instance, the show’s original design added significant kinetic dimensions to the story.

J. Mark McVey as Jean Valjean in LES MISERABLES
  • Paul Kolnik
  • J. Mark McVey as Jean Valjean in LES MISERABLES

Well, goodbye to all that. This revival completely abandons that approach for a newer—and presumably less expensive—technology: the digital animations of Edinburgh’s 59 Productions, based on the paintings of author Victor Hugo. These are projected on the new set’s conventional back wall. When actor J. Mark McVey’s Valjean robs the Bishop of Digne early on, an ominous black-and-white painting of a churchyard at night appears behind him. In a scene that follows, a muddy painting of distant smokestacks provides the background after the desperately poor Fantine (Betsy Morgan) is fired from her factory job in Montreuil-Sur-Mer.

But this technical switch-out is not entirely satisfactory as a replacement. If Hugo’s illustrations are atmospheric, here they also look unrelievedly dingy. Is their indistinct quality a deliberate choice to highlight antique illustrations that have degraded over time? Or do they signal instead unfortunate repeated collisions with Paule Constable’s conspicuously hemmed-in lighting designs? Either way, 19th-century France now frequently seems murkier than it used to be.

Then there’s the logical disconnect whenever paintings briefly animate as they move several scenes along a darkened boulevard or two. Not to mention the unfortunate tinge of theme park ride which accompanies the moment a Parisian street apparently gives way and the audience suddenly plummets into the city’s cavernous sewers for “Dog Eat Dog.”

True, with the turntable gone, scenic designer Matt Kinley is now free to explore vertical stage space in a way the original could have only imagined. As his massive, three-story panels that are fashioned to resemble hundreds of ruined wooden shutters part, the destitute of Montreuil and Paris dramatically spill forward. For its part, the fatal barricade now stretches, more believably, across the entire stage. And the mandatory darkness required to preserve the projected images above has other benefits as well, as creative zone lighting enhances the intensity of several scenes.

Blue light special? Paule Constables rays of death, in LES MISERABLES
  • Deen van Meer
  • Blue light special? Paule Constable’s rays of death, in LES MISERABLES

But then Constable mars every death scene with a sore-thumb lighting cue that devolves into visual cliché well before the final curtain. Throughout the production, a sudden flood of high-intensity white light tinged with blue spotlights every character as they die (with one obvious exception). While the unsubtle choice lends early deaths a note of melodrama, when multiple rays simultaneously pierce the general gloom of the massacre at the Paris barricade, that scene briefly resembles an extraterrestrial landing zone more than a shattered battlefield.

It’s a shame that technical trade-offs and dubious design improvements distract from the repeated vocal and theatrical strengths of this production. McVey’s absolutely haunting wartime prayer, “Bring Him Home,” fully earned the extended ovation and cheers an appreciative audience gave. As Javert, Andrew Varela’s solos, “Stars” and “Soliloquy,” were clearly moving as well. The delicate duets of Max Quinlan’s Marius and Julie Benko’s Cosette had us shivering with delight in “A Heart Full of Love,” before Quinlan’s more pensive take on “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”

We savored the theatrical staging and song craft present in Fantine’s struggle with a factory enemy (given sardonic life by Casey Erin Clark) in “At the End of the Day.” Even more cutting and crisp was the social indictment of “Lovely Ladies,” made considerably more savage by the talented women’s chorus.

The audience also clearly loved the broad satire of those blackguard hosts, the Thénadiers (Richard Vida and Shawna Hamic). Their raucous “Master of the House” brought down the house in Act One, before an ever-so-slightly more civilized late show reprise, “Beggars at the Feast.” That couple’s consummate cynicism was effectively countered in the intricate, four-part fugues of “One More Day” and the show’s finale. The ideals of Jeremy Hays’ heroic Enjolras similarly clashed with the existential concerns of Joseph Spieldenner’s vivid Grantaire in “ABC Cafe” and the martial “People’s Song.”

One Day More: the cast of LES MISERABLES

It’s clear that a number of verses and repeats could be trimmed from LES MIS without trauma to the show. But the excisions here veer more than once into vital tissue. The breakneck tempo at the outset of the Montreuil scenes rendered all but unintelligible an otherwise forceful chorus of the downtrodden. Later on, Javert simply doesn’t have time to be terribly suspicious when an older Valjean, now the town’s Mayor, can rescue a man by lifting a cart that has fallen on him. The lack of suspense in these and other encounters is noticeable, and troubling.

Those and other absences leave us with the nagging sense that several of this production’s characters and dramatic conditions may never have been that fully established to begin with. It’s an old show-biz rubric: speed sacrifices depth. When we’re bustled along—and, occasionally, bum-rushed—across a landscape so murky and broad, the time needed for the principal roles to truly gel may well have been the first casualty.

It’s an irony of the first order that, in a production so visually reliant on the gravitas of old oil paintings, more than one character, dramatic situation and relationship in this version of LES MIS seems to have only been sketched in by comparison.