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Editorial Review

The rebellious ‘Les Miz’

By Peter Marks
Friday, Sept. 30, 2011

You know what they say: Miserables love company. For confirmation, look no further than Washington's latest return engagement of "Les Miserables," that exemplar of a vampire genre of musical theater: the mega-popular show that refuses to die.

"Les Miz"-es of recent vintage were here in 2005, in a well-made touring incarnation at National Theatre, and in 2008, as more supple and compact entertainment, at Signature Theatre. It materializes yet again in a breathlessly paced, almost frantically re-engineered version on the Kennedy Center's largest stage, the Opera House.

It's not the best "Les Miz" you'll ever sit through, though it may be the loudest; it's as if the new directors brought in for this 25th anniversary production, Laurence Connor and James Powell, decided that the show should be SHOUTED FROM THE ROOFTOPS of Paris. The lung power on the stage - some of it quite mellifluous - could inflate the sails for the America's Cup. This production's Jean Valjean (J. Mark McVey) and his arch nemesis, Javert (Andrew Varela), possess voices of such tornadic majesty that the Opera House's massive dimensions hardly pose a physical challenge.

The original directors, John Caird and Trevor Nunn, famously placed their "Les Miserables" - based on Victor Hugo's epic 19th-century novel about politically turbulent France - on a giant turntable, which assisted in propelling the myriad subplots and heaps of exposition. For this road tour, Laurence Connor and James Powell put the spinning device on ice and instead infused panels of handsome, ever-changing projections with a cinematic drive. (The gritty streetscapes by set designer Matt Kinley are said to be derived from Hugo's paintings.)

Sprucing up the look for new generations of theatergoers is a good idea; the design is particularly effective when Valjean escapes through the sewers of Paris, the tunnel moving as McVey makes his way. Less compelling, however, are the decisions to have actors bark out Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics to Claude-Michel Schnberg's music and technicians pump up the story's mawkishness: The high beams of spiritual light showered on anyone of virtue who dies (and a whole lot of good guys in "Les Miz" meet their maker) come across as unadulterated schmaltz.

Though some of the tempos seem to have quickened, and some of the numbers are belted in a way that would be more fitting to the sensibility of Simon Cowell than Hugo, most of the lovely hymns and enchanting anthems survive intact. McVey's "Bring Him Home" and Varela's "Stars" deservedly earn an audience's swoons. Their performances are the heavy-lifting backbones of this overly hectic installment of "Les Miz," an evening that, at times, gives the impression that it's trying just a tad too hard.

Hugo inspires new ‘Les Miz’

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Sept. 23, 2011

If "Cats" purred for the last time, or if "Phantom of the Opera" never again emerged from the opera-house cellars, theatergoers probably wouldn't riot over the loss.

But unlike those relics of the '80s, the bombastic, romantic "Les Miserables" still has the power to transport audiences to a cold, brutal 19th-century Paris, even 25 years after its debut.

The musical, which played for an extraordinary 15-plus years on Broadway and has inspired a film, tours and a recent single-handed revival by an unknown named Susan Boyle (who chose "I Dreamed a Dream" for her star-making TV turn), sweeps into the Kennedy Center on Wednesday for a month-long run. This "Les Miserables," however, is a behemoth largely tranformed from the one that captivated its first American audiences there in 1986, before its Broadway run.

For the 25th-anniversary production, the show's creators set out to gently polish away any tarnish the years have left. Out are the revolving stage and keyboard-heavy score. In their place are more 21st-century touches, including the use of gloomy, painterly projections inspired by the drawings of "Les Miserables" author Victor Hugo.

"I couldn't bear the thought of doing the same production for another 25 years," powerhouse producer Cameron Mackintosh says with a laugh during a recent phone interview. The story remains a grand drama, following Jean Valjean, a fugitive running from a relentless inspector, Javert, who is intent on making him suffer eternally for his one-off crime of stealing bread.

But the orchestrations, Mackintosh says, were nearly 30 years old. And so, as he had done with "Mary Poppins" and his revivals of "Oklahoma" and "My Fair Lady," he opened the door to substantial changes. He brought in a trio of composers to augment the orchestrations by John Cameron (and to strip some of its '80s synth sound).

To revisit the sets, Mackintosh plucked designer Matt Kinley, who had done a similar turn for the new stage version of "Mary Poppins." The "Les Miz" job, however, proved very tricky, Kinley says.

The original "Les Miserables" sets gave the illusion of being larger than life but, in fact, were startlingly simple, Kinley says. "There's a black box, there's a revolve and Paris doubles as a barricade," he says, which made "Les Miz" a highly portable show. The designer, however, wasn't interested in reprising the revolving stage or black sets. "Otherwise, we'd just get sucked into doing the same show," he says. If the revolve in the original was a metaphor for Valjean's journey, Kinley had to find a new way to swiftly offer up a change of scenery without missing a beat.

Projections were the answer, and for inspiration, he turned to Hugo's all-but-buried ink drawings.

"They're very brooding and beautiful," says Kinley, who saw the writer's washy, surreal artwork "as right for the world that he'd written as well."

"Unfortunately," he adds with a laugh, "the bugger didn't paint Paris for me, and he didn't paint the sewers."

So to create the images projected onto the walls, Kinley merged Hugo's ominous skies and sepia colors with real street scenes drawn from photographer Charles Marville's shots of buildings from pre-revolutionary Paris. It's hard to see where Hugo's influence and Kinley's own touches begin and end. (Some Washingtonians got a look at the projections in summer 2008, when an early version of this "Les Miz" was performed at Wolf Trap.)

It's easy to see now, Kinley says, that the Hugo drawings give his design "an intellectual backbone." Looking back on it, trying to arrive at something fresh, respectful of the original staging and easy to pack up, he adds, "almost gave me a nervous breakdown."

"We were all very, very worried about messing with this show, to do it without throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

This is not the first evolution of "Les Miserables" and probably not the last. Mackintosh recalls that the first London shows clocked in at four hours.

Of its current incarnation, he says proudly, "the music and the pace of the production is much grittier."

This "Les Miz," he says, "has a sort of restless energy to it."