Check out our interview with Andrew Varela who plays Inspector Javert.
The set-up: In this 25th anniversary touring production presented by Gexa Energy Broadway, the blockbuster pop opera by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music), Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (original French text), Herbert Kretzmer (English lyrics), James Fenton (additional material), along with the invaluable physical mise en scéne devised by original directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird, remains an epic theatrical achievement.
Like the gargantuan Victor Hugo novel from which it has been wily adapted, the show explodes with grand emotions and elemental forces writ large: Selfless Love, Indomitable Courage, Utopian Commitment, Social Inequality, Venal Opportunism, Youthful Folly, Heavenly Redemption. It is as rich and affecting a theatrical experience as you could wish.
The execution: Time hasn't dimmed the power of Les Mis. (The show has run continuously in London since its 1985 premiere, proof of some sort of force of nature.) The mega-musical grabs you from the first scene of the fast-paced Prologue and never shakes loose.
Prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyer), strains at the oars as a galley slave in the bowels of a French warship with other convicts lamenting their abysmal fate. His sentence of 15 years hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread is bound to get your sympathy. The pillar of civilization, the legal system, is painted as terribly skewed and unjust toward. Paroled from hell, Valjean is ill-prepared for society. Mocked and abused, he's tainted as a perpetual criminal. When he is absolved by a saintly churchman for his rash theft of silverware, he vows to start life anew. Hot on his heels is implacable policeman Javert (Andrew Varela), obsessed with bringing Valjean back to justice, who then hounds him for decades. It's a perfect opening, cinematic in the telling, constantly on the move, enlarged with soaring, emotion-laden anthems that completely capture the mood of this ultra-romantic/ultra-earthy tale.
More is yet to come in the adventurous saga, and the authors have rewoven Hugo's thick tapestry into a veritable flying carpet of theater magic. The show never loses its momentum, always fleet of foot and genuinely stirring.
We follow Valjean in his new persona as mayor and factory owner, where we meet unwed mother Fantine (Betsy Morgan), who, when unfairly dismissed from her own slavish labor, falls quickly into prostitution. Savagely beaten by a pompous john, she is rescued by Valjean who promises to raise her child Cosette. Escaping Javert, Valjean finds the child in the shabby inn of the shabby Thénardiers (Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic), the ultimate survivors.
Nine years later, which goes by in a flash of backdrop, thanks to the amazing, animated projections inspired by Hugo's own etchings, we're in Paris where Valjean lives a solitary life with now-grown Cosette (Lauren Wily). Paris seethes with civil unrest as student Marius (Max Quinlan), along with other young firebrands stirred by social injustice, take to the barricades in deadly civil protest. He has fallen in love with Cosette, but he's also loved from afar by Thénardier's daughter Eponine (Biana Carson-Goodman), a fiery compatriot. The great clash upon the barricades is thrillingly staged, and the final moment when all the youth are shot dead is a dramatic set piece of immense emotion.
Les Mis is an opera. There's next to no spoken dialogue whatever, almost everything is sung. Although the orchestration can't compete with even a lesser work by Puccini or Verdi, it's still plenty hefty for a touring show and, under maestro Lawrence Goldberg, the compact orchestra pours out a most satisfying full sound. When the entire ensemble marches forward, plants its feet on the stage apron, and roars out the rousing "One Day More," the Hobby reverberates. I dare you not to be affected.
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Pop-oriented, awash in melody, Schönberg's music deeply touches us. The songs delineate character: ethereal falsetto for Valjean's innate goodness; belting power ballads for the lovers; vigorous martial anthems for the revolutionaries; Broadway pizzazz for the cartoony villains the Thénardiers. There are leitmotifs that lead our ear onward, snippets of chord harmony from one song that swell into the next, which keeps the score in perpetual motion. Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream," Valjean's haunting "Bring Him Home," Marius' "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" are deserved showstoppers.
What would an opera be without good singers? Les Mis has an exemplary cast. For pure voice, Varela's baritone is robust and dusky as Javert; Carson-Goodman's purring alto tears into Eponine's "On My Own" and breaks our heart; Quinlan's ardent tenor throbs with Marius' discovery of new-found love; Lockyer's high-flying tenor ennobles Valjean's impassioned fervor and sanctity.
The verdict: In its depiction of the universal struggle of the hopeless and downtrodden, Les Misérables works like gangbusters. As a juggernaut of contemporary musical theater in all its grandeur, this 25th anniversary production, with its sterling showbiz know-how, enlightens, elevates -- and superbly entertains.
Victor Hugo's highly romantic saga of 19th-century Paris and its discontented poor, set to glorious song by Schönberg and Boublil, runs through November 11 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at the theater's website or call 713-315-2525. $50 to $150.