The Bushnell's 25th Anniversary Tour of LES MISERABLES Better Than Original
In 1987, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s musical treatment of Victor Hugo’s 19th century sprawling novel landed on Broadway where it quickly became a sensation. Taking up semi-permanent residence, Les Miserables finally shuttered in 2003. Three years later, they parked the national tour on Broadway and ran for another two years, bringing the grand total of performances to 7,176. As such, one would not think it would be high time to revive the show, especially as it has had three national touring companies criss-crossing the country from 1987 to 2006.
My first and only experience with Les Miserables was the first national tour at The Bushnell back in 1990. I liked it well enough, but was not as crazy for the show as others. Obviously the score has many beguiling moments, but with a 3-hour running time and lots of characters to juggle, it was a bit exhausting. One can only take some over-earnest solo ballads. I was over in Paris in 1992/93 and I picked up the Parisian cast album and liked the show better in the original French. To be honest, I was not looking forward to going to The Bushnell this week to revisit the show.
My mistake. The 25th Anniversary Tour of Les Miserables, although managed by the original’s producer Cameron Mackintosh, is a fairly bold re-envisioning of the musical. First and foremost, the look of the production is substantially different, this time inspired by Victor Hugo’s paintings (I know, who knew he painted?). Dark and gritty, this version truly mines the miserable conditions of “les miserables” (loosely translated from the French: the wretched poor). This production could almost be called “Occupy Paris,” making Hugo’s divisions of the haves and have-nots more acute and timely.
The famous spinning barricade from the original production is gone, replaced with more traditional flats and architecture. The lighting is superlative and augmented simply and beautifully with projections that simulate snowfall, Paris, and the sewers. The sound of this production is robust and seemed less synthesized than I remembered from my previous visit. On the whole it feels more like an opera and less like a pop opera.
The score overflows with memorable melodies, all performed here with passion and musicality. Head and shoulders above the crowded Parisian streets is J. Mark McVey as the escaped convict Jean Valjean sings with authority and sensitivity. His belt works as beautifully as his upper register in songs like “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home.” As his bete noir, Andrew Varela’s Inspector Javert has a booming voice and a menacing presence. As the student revolutionaries, Jeremy Hays and Max Quinlan sing their way passionately through the June Rebellion of 1832.
As the dastardly Thernardier’s, Shawna Hamic and Richard Vida bring down the house with the one truly humorous number in the show, “Master of the House.” Chasten Harmon is an effective and touching Eponine, soundly delivering the best song in the show, “On My Own.” The most famous number in the score, the ubiquitous “I Dreamed A Dream,” is capably sung by Betsy Morgan as Fantine, but it lacked a bit of the darker tones found in the lyrics.
Yes, I still feel the show is too long. The longer first act flies while the shorter second act suffers from multiple reprises and a superfluous return of the Thernardiers in the final moments. In the end, my reservations were irrelevant compared to the overflowing waves of adoration given the production by The Bushnell audience. Before the curtain call, people were on their feet hooting and hollering in an ovation that was truly merited. Bravo.