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Theater Review: “Les Misérables” At The Ahmanson

Jason Kehe |
June 21, 2011 | 8:12 a.m. PDT

Senior Arts Editor

 

Photos courtesy of Center Theatre Group.
Photos courtesy of Center Theatre Group.
When “Les Misérables” first opened in 1985, reviews were, if not miserable, then at least poor. Critics, self-empowered defenders of culture that they are, had difficulty stomaching the musical adaptation of a work of such heavy literary weight (in both the figurative and physical sense of the word). But like its persevering, palindromically named protagonist, ex-con Jean Valjean, “Les Misérables” — known more colloquially by the somewhat Francophobic truncation, “Les Miz” — won out against critical adversity and went on to become the world-famous musical it is today.

Will the original critics ever be vindicated? No time soon, it would seem. Only slightly diminished by time, the pop-opera masterpiece, now running in its 25th-anniversary edition at the Ahmanson through the end of July, remains a tour-de-force achievement in musical theater — if not as significant as it once was, then at least as rousing. 

There are a lot of “re”-prefix words to account for in this revival production; press and promotional materials alone mention “restaged,” “reimagined” and “reorchestrated.” The musical has certainly been given a facelift — some of the technology, especially the stunning new digital backdrops, wouldn’t have been possible 25 years ago — but the meat of the show remains intact. The experience is no doubt different, but it’s not a different show. 

The simple-ish story of wronged-man-does-right, set amid the Paris uprisings of the early-to-mid 1800s, begins and ends with Jean Valjean, played in this production by character veteran J. Mark McVey. Something to the early detriment of the play, McVey doesn’t make much of an impression in the first act, where his character is finally released from 19 years on the chain gang, to find himself at first recidivistic, then reformed. But by the second, where he takes on a false identity and aids the student revolutionaries in their fight against the government, he seems to find the essence of Valjean, thanks in part to a flawless rendition of “Bring Him Home,” and both he and the show come dramatically, redeemingly alive.  

But it’s not the principals, oddly enough, who carry this “Les Misérables,” which really becomes a showcase for the second-string players. The names everyone knows — Javert (Andrew Varela), the policeman who obsessively hunts Valjean; Fantine (Betsy Morgan), the poor prostitute whom Valjean rescues from the streets; and Cosette (Jenny Latimer), the young girl whom he adopts — are capably given life by the actors in the parts, but — with the exception of Varela, all internal conflict and raging passion — they aren’t memorable. Even Morgan’s “I Dreamed a Dream” doesn’t leave its mark (though the song’s overexposure in pop culture might be partly to blame). It doesn’t help that characterization was never a strength of the musical. Cosette is a nothing part, as is her young love, Marius (an easy-on-the-eyes-and-ears, but otherwise forgettable, Justin Scott Brown). 

The less visible members of the ensemble turn in much richer, more dramatically varied performances, starting with Chasten Harmon’s sweetly sad Éponine, who wishes Marius had eyes for her. She makes the most of her solo at the top of the second act, singing “On My Own” with aching longing and unmistakable ability. Jeremy Hays also stands out as Enjolras, whose nerdy appearance belies a stentorian baritone — perfect for the leader of the student revolutionaries. And Michael Kostroff and Shawna M. Hamic both make memorable turns as the the Thénardiers, a grotesque husband-and-wife comedy duo.

The finer points of the plot (wait, who is General Lamarque, and why does it matter that he’s dead?) get lost amid the soaring ballads and beautiful sets (and it doesn’t help that the Ahmanson is consistently bedeviled by sound problems), but even if you don’t know exactly why this or that character is mad, sad or excited, you find yourself deeply invested in them anyway. Eyes remain almost permanently welled with tears in the second act, at times out of sadness, but mostly from the euphoric feeling of witnessing the power of simple melodies sung with tremendous heart. Few can doubt the effectiveness of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s music, especially a rousing finale number like “One Day More.” 

But it’s even better when served with everything else — Matt Kinley’s set pieces, all ugly browns and dusty grays; Paule Constable’s brilliant, almost soul-piercing lighting; and Andreane Neofitou’s raggedy costumes. They combine to create an aesthetic unique to musical theater: street-dirty but, barely visible through the cracks, pulsing with the light of God. 

When those cracks are finally shattered and the light of redemption comes streaming through, you know why this musical has endured for a quarter-century — because it’s about redemption that feels rightly earned, and there’s no less satisfying a triumph. 

Contact Senior Arts Editor Jason Kehe here.



 

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