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BWW Reviews: LES MISERABLES Storms the Barricades in LA

Les Misérables, the longest running musical of all time (with the original production still performing eight times a week in its hometown of London), has returned to Los Angeles in a new, "25th Anniversary" production, currently playing downtown at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre in a limited run, now through July 31st.

While all the marketing material bills this as a "new production," it certainly won't make you forget the original, which truly set a new bar in musical theatre, with its magically simple set design and its iconic turntable. (For full disclosure, 10 years ago I worked behind the scenes on the 10th Anniversary Production on Broadway, and subsequent national tour.) But, judging from the wild audience applause throughout the show and a standing ovation on opening night, you can't deny that the musical still hits an emotional nerve with a truly moving story and score.

For anyone unfamiliar, Les Misérables tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man who was convicted for stealing a loaf of bread, and ends up serving 19 years for that petty crime. Upon his release, though, the "yellow ticket of leave" he's required by law to carry dooms him to judgment from all around, until a kind bishop takes him in. Learning from the kindness of the bishop, Valjean vows to change his life, and reinvents himself. All this takes place against the backdrop of growing discontent in 19th century France, culminating in a student revolution in the streets of Paris.

While most people are readily familiar with the musical, the story can be somewhat confusing for a newcomer. And it seemed as though this production's directors, Laurence Connor and James Powell, both of whom worked in some capacity on the original version, assume you've seen the original production and already know the story. For instance, while the original production used projections to give audiences a sense of time and place, the new version choose not to include this pertinent information (except in the program). It was especially glaring in the transition from Montfermeil in 1823 to Paris 1832, when the characters we just saw on stage instantaneously age 9 years with no explanation.

In fact, throughout the show the ghost of the original version hangs heavy over the show. Much of the stagecraft is strikingly similar to the original, but without the creativity; the costumes are near identical (and from the same costume designer), the sets still monochromatic, and the lighting remains moody and dark (aside from lots of beams of white light, including a distracting LA Police helicopter-like spotlight that turns up in the student revolution gun battle). The one true, striking difference is the use of projections as set backgrounds, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. They are effective, if not a little benign, and one almost wishes they would have truly utilized the technology to greater effect. With the absence of the turntable, the animated projections could have given the set a greater sense of fluidity and movement, as it strikingly does in the second act, when the scene shifts from the streets of Paris to the sewers underneath.

As for the cast, most are fine and strong singers first and foremost, with their acting lagging behind, which is tough in this type of show, which requires its participants to find deep a emotional core to create a multi-dimensional character. Here, they come off mostly as caricatures, believing that shouting lines and singing louder is the key to conveying emotion. In most cases, the actors never find the subtlety and nuance in the songs, choosing instead to sing each number with full force from the first note, giving the character Little Room to grow or evolve over the course of the evening. Their direction, as well, does them no favors, forcing them to simply sing out at the audience, instead of their fellow actors, which often times made them feel disconnected from the action on stage.

All that being said, the production still packs a punch, and can still move men to tears. The audience on opening night was wildly appreciative, and the show seemed to aptly tap the emotional memories of their first experience seeing the show.

Which, ultimately, is what is the true shame of this 25th Anniversary production. The producer could have chosen to truly make a departure from the original version and given us a new reason to love the show, but instead went for a more nostalgic and sentimental "road-tour" show that simply lives in the shadow of the original.

Les Misérables runs now through July 31st. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.; No Monday performances. Exceptions: No general public performance on June 22 (student performance only); Added 2 p.m. matinee performances on Thursdays June 30 and July 28; No 6:30 p.m. performance on Sundays July 3 and 31. Tickets are available by calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at (213) 972-4400, in person at the Center Theatre Group box office or on-line at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.

 

The cast of Cameron Mackintosh's new 25th anniversary production "Les Misérables"
Photo: Deen van Meer

 


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