‘Les Miserables’ back at Kennedy Center for 25th anniversary


WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 29: Cameron Mackintosh's new 25th anniversary production of Les Miserables at The Kennedy Center. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post) (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 29, 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 Schönberg’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.

Les Miserables

music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, from

French version by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell. Musical staging, Michael Ashcroft; projections,

Fifty-nine Productions;

new orchestrations, Chris Jahnke; lighting, Paule Constable;

costumes, Andreane Neofitou;

sound, Mick Potter.

With Betsy Morgan, Jenny Latimer, Chasten Harmon, Shawna M. Hamic, Richard Vida, Justin Scott Brown, Jeremy Hays. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Oct. 30 at the

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Visit www.kennedy-center.org

or call 202-467-4600.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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