BWW Reviews: LES MISERABLES 25th Anniversary Tour
Les Miserables was my introduction to musical theatre, and has held a special place in my heart for twenty five years. I was fortunate enough to see the Original Canadian Cast in 1987, and have returned to the show that ignited my love for all things musical many times over the years. So naturally I was nervous when I heard that the latest "25th Anniversary Tour" was actually a new production, with changes to my beloved show. For me, Les Miserables was a perfect piece of musical theatre - one of those shows where, as an audience member, you could easily forgive obvious problems because the production as a whole was so powerful and special. I couldn't fathom it being changed without ending in disaster, and I know many people were concerned that the show would somehow lose the magic that has kept it alive for a quarter of a century.
These concerns are completely unwarranted. The new production is simply stunning, and breathes new life into the classic tale. For those who don't know, Les Miserables is based on Victor Hugo's classic novel about right and wrong, good versus evil and ultimately, the survival of the human spirit. The 25th Anniversary Tour features new staging, scenery and costumes largely inspired by paintings of Victor Hugo. I recently saw the production during its sold-out engagement at Detroit's Fisher Theatre, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
A musical doesn't last a quarter of a century without a spectacular score, and the score to Les Miserables is virtually untouched in this new production. Instead, the creative team focuses on changes to the set that serve to accentuate the story. I don't want to give away any of the changes as the surprise was part of the joy of the production, but suffice it to say they work extremely well, and serve to further flesh out the story.
The show begins with a gorgeous backdrop painting of Victor Hugo's, and just the first few notes of the Overture will sweep you up in the magic of Les Miserables. Ron Sharpe plays the convict Jean Valjean, with Andrew Varela playing his nemesis - Police Inspector Javert. Both men rise to the occasion in difficult roles and give outstanding performances. Their voices complement each other well, and when they square off in songs like "Confrontation" it's a joy to listen to. Both men also act their roles with panache, as they struggle with questions of morality and the internal conflict both deal with throughout the story. These two roles are challenging because they span decades and the characters go through intense transformations. The new staging further helps the actors accomplish this goal, so that by the end of the show the audience feels they have grown along with the characters. In the end, you are left to question your own beliefs of what is right and what is wrong, and the issue of who the real "villain" of the story is becomes properly muddled, adding to the power of the story.
As Valjean, Ron Sharpe shows us just how powerful this role can be when done right. Jean Valjean carries the story of Les Miserables, and it also happens to be the most vocally demanding role in the show. Mr. Sharpe did a wonderful job of showing the growth of Jean Valjean from a jaded and emotionally confused convict on the run to an established father, friend and man of moral integrity. During the show's pinnacle number "Bring Him Home" Mr. Sharpe seemed to struggle to hit some of the higher notes; however, the raw emotion he conveys throughout the song more than made up for the minor difficulty he was experiencing. By the end the audience is genuinely invested in Valjean and his plight.
On the other side of the law is Inspector Javert, played by Andrew Varela (who played the role of Jean Valjean on Broadway before stepping into the role of Javert). Mr. Varela delivers a consistently strong performance, and does a fabulous job of showcasing the internal conflict Javert experiences. The role is one that I have too often seen played one-dimensionally, with Javert simply being a man of the law who we, the audience, root against because of his conflict with Valjean. However, Mr. Varela makes excellent use of some of the directorial changes to expand on the character of Javert and make him more human. In his Act I show-stopper "Stars" he convinces us that this man feels his way is the ONLY way, yet by the time "Javert's Suicide" comes in Act II we can see a man who is broKen Down and extremely conflicted.
There isn't a weak link in the entire cast; in fact there are more than a few stand-out performances in addition to Mr. Sharpe and Mr. Varela. John Rapson went on in place of Michael Kostroff as Thenardier, and brought a new level of contempt to a role that too many actors play as simply comedic relief. Some of the subtle changes made to this particular role delighted me - Mr. Rapson and Shawna M. Hamic (in the role of Madame Thenardier) both handled the material brilliantly. These characters are meant to be downright despicable but also get many of the biggest laughs in the show, and the pair had the audience eating up every word during "Master of the House."
The female leads were equally strong, delivering heart-wrenching performances. In particular, Chasten Harmon stood out as the tough-as-nails and tragically over-looked Eponine. In her Act II solo "On My Own", Ms. Harmon was vocally outstanding while also conveying the heartache and difficulty that Eponine experiences as she realizes that she truly is alone in the world.
Finally, the male leads did an excellent job. A large portion of the show centers around the student revolution that took place in France prior to the French Revolution, and the young men portraying the students who rise up to fight against the social injustices they are faced with were outstanding. Both Jeremy Hays as Enjolras and Justin Scott Brown as Marius had beautiful voices and were attractive to boot - which goes a long way towards tugging at the heart strings when they begin fighting upon the barricades. A special mention should go to Joseph Spieldenner as Grantaire, a role that is often over-looked despite being integral to the story. Mr. Spieldenner ensured that Grantaire was not only noticed but actually stood out amongst the group of students; at no point was this more noticeable than during Gavroche's death. It was at this point in the show that any remaining doubt I may have had about the various changes fell away. I don't want to say how the scene plays out, but I will say that the staging and lighting is used in an ingenious and powerful way to accentuate the relationship between Grantiare and young Gavroche, packing his untimely demise with a greater emotional punch than it did in previous incarnations.
Overall this was a wonderful production, one well-suited to grace The Great White Way again sooner rather than later. In the end, Les Miserables is a story of the triumph of good over evil, told through beautiful and timeless music that the world has thoroughly embraced. The 25th Anniversary Tour succeeds in making the production fresh and giving it new life, something which I hope will ensure that Les Miserables gets to celebrate a 50th Anniversary still going strong.
When and Where?
Les Miserables 25th Anniversary Tour
Next Stop: Milwaukee, WI
April 19th-24th at Uihlein Hall
For ticket information or to see a list of cities that the 25th Anniversary Tour will visit please visit the official website at www.lesmis.com/us-tour