Somewhere, a savvy media mogul is surely planning a “Les Miserables” theme park, complete with a Sewers of Paris log-flume ride; a “Look Down! Look Down!” parachute drop; and a “Master of the House” eatery staffed by animatronic-innkeeper waiters.
The edition of the blockbuster musical at the National Theatre through Dec. 30 is not that theme park — but you might be pardoned, now and then, for thinking it was. As it wheels efficiently through its tale of love, injustice and revolution in 19th-century France, ponying up stirring melodies and marshaling the requisite number of dramatic stage pictures, this epic often displays all the spontaneity of a mechanized waxwork exhibit in a gift shop vestibule.
Performers such as Peter Lockyer, as the compassionate former convict Jean Valjean, and Andrew Varela, as the implacable policeman Javert — Valjean’s nemesis — display vocal panache and the odd wispy flame of intensity in solo numbers. But when those moments are over, the vibrancy disappears, and the actors become cogs in a well-oiled and joyless entertainment machine. Around them, rigorously trained supporting players and briskly sliding scenic units create tableau after dutiful tableau: a coarse and boisterous crowd of prostitutes with ragged gowns and grimy faces; an inn full of carousing guests; a Paris slum; a band of doomed students clambering on a barricade; and more.
In this context, composer Claude-Michel Schonberg’s powerful score, with its cannily recurrent motifs and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, feels businesslike — an effective mechanism for enhancing suspense, underscoring pathos, manipulating audience emotion and maybe selling T-shirts.
It’s easy to understand why this “Les Miz” — a version of a production put together by impresario Cameron Mackintosh in honor of the show’s 25th anniversary — might be on autopilot: The Victor Hugo-derived extravaganza has often found a friendly welcome in Washington. The musical had its American premiere at the Kennedy Center in 1986 before moving to Broadway, and since then, has conjured up its roiling human landscapes about nine times in the nation’s capital, including engagements at the Kennedy Center and the National and a 2008 Signature Theatre interpretation. A news release drawn up for the current engagement asserts that “Les Miz” has raked in a local box office gross of $53,226,585 over the years. And D.C. is the first U.S. city where the new “Les Miserables” movie will play concurrently with a theatrical production. Ka-ching!
To be fair, this staging, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, doesn’t feel entirely mercenary and robotic. (The production visited the Kennedy Center in 2011 with a largely different cast.) In his mellifluous exploration of the song “Stars,” Varela manages to reveal a yearning uncertainty beneath Javert’s ruthlessness. Briana Carlson-Goodman’s Eponine is appealingly gutsy; Jason Forbach’s version of the student Enjolras has charisma in spades; and in a competent if not memorable rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” Genevieve Leclerc at least establishes the potency of Fantine’s memories. As the swaggering urchin Gavroche, Joshua Colley (who alternates in the role with Hayden Wall) is irresistible.
Matt Kinley’s set design, said to have been inspired by Victor Hugo’s paintings, isn’t doing the actors any favors these days, though. The three-dimensional scenery — tilting slum buildings, the students’ bristling barricade — is looking utilitarian and a tad dusty, as if it had been sitting in a warehouse alongside backup units for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
And the projections by Fifty-Nine Productions — village roofs; city streets and sewers; and other vistas, often in charcoal tones — sometimes move, giving the production a cinematic but dehumanized feel. When Enjolras and his comrades march, and projections of streets fall away behind them, you know that you are trapped, not in revolutionary Paris, but in a colossal — and ever more lucrative — media franchise.
Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg; lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer; original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel; additional material by James Fenton; original production adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell; musical staging, Michael Ashcroft; new orchestrations, Christopher Jahnke; lighting, Paule Constable; costumes, Andreane Neofitou. With Timothy Gulan, Shawna M. Hamic, Devin Ilaw and Lauren Wiley. 2 hours, 45 minutes. Through Dec. 30, National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Tickets: www.telecharge.com or
(800) 447-7400. www.nationaltheatre.org.
Wren is a freelance writer.