25th Anniversary Les Mis Docks at Ahmanson
music by Claude-Michel Schonberg; lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel
directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
through July 31
There are not enough superlatives to describe the magnificence of Les Miserables. The musical score and the scope of the storytelling - so grand - are nothing short of breathtaking. Now the 25th anniversary production triumphantly plays the Ahmanson Theatre through July 31 with top-notch direction from Laurence Connor and James Powell and a stunning ensemble. This production plays more realistically than past renderings but it serves to enhance rather than diminish.
Victor Hugo wrote the novel Les Miserables upon which the musical is based, but few know that Hugo was also a visual artist who created more than 4000 modern expressionistic drawings. It was his creative outlet from 1848-51. In this production the drawings are wisely and beautifully utilized as background. Mostly black and grey with touches of white, they are very dark and foreboding, perfectly suiting the atmosphere and mood of 19th century Paris, the backdrop for Les Mis. Setting the scene, Jean Valjean (J. Mark McVey), a thief purely out of poverty, learns a lesson in humility and amends his ways, but is still pursued throughout his life by police, particularly by Javert (Andrew Varela). Valjean takes Cosette ( Katherine Forrester as a child; Jenny Latimer, adult) after her mother Fantine's (Betsy Morgan) death and brings her up as his own. She falls in love with revolutionary student Marius (Justin Scott Brown), also tragically loved by Eponine (Chasten Harmon). The Thenardiers (Michael Kostroff and Shawna M. Hamic), two unrelentingly menacing street thieves/scoundrels who had surrendered Cosette to Valjean for a high price, consistently abuse Valjean and Cosette whenever their paths cross.
The epic story has more downs than ups with rampant poverty, death and devastation. In this production, directors Connor and Powell have concentrated more on gritty reality than theatrics, and so many scenes play out far more naturally. Take for example, Fantine's deathbed scene. It is not overblown as in past productions. Javert's starkly grim suicide fall from the bridge is yet another example. Despite this reality, though, one cannot escape the sensations that come from looking at a rich and varied canvas throughout. There is a mix of art and humanity, which becomes intoxicating.
The cast are uniformly superb. McVey is a walking illustration of gentility and kindness and never misses a beat in his totally open depiction of Valjean's integrity. Harmon is riveting and sympathetic as the tragic Eponine and even Varela as Javert, Valjean's arch enemy, plays out his moments of bewilderment and confusion with an understandably strained humanity. The children in the ensemble are all terrific with special nod to Colin DePaula as eternally brave little Gavroche. Kostroff and Hamic are brutally hilarious as the Thenardiers. Bravo to one and all - they can really sing!
Matt Kinley's set design inspired by the paintings of Hugo is brilliant as are costumes by Andreane Neofitou, lighting by Paule Constable, and sound design by Mick Potter. Schonberg and Kretzmer's overpowering score is unforgettable with one song better than the next: "I Dreamed a Dream", "Castle on a Cloud", "Master of the House", "One Day More", "On My Own", "Bring Him Home" and my personal favorite "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" resonating the rich meaning of life.
This Les Miserables is more believably real and brutally honest than most. After 25 years, it shows just how well the musical stands the test of time. Its message is eternal, and its execution, a powerhouse. For me, the most chilling and memorable line/image: "To love another person is to see the face of God."