By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
What there is in Les Miz, now at the Winspear Opera House on a 25th anniversary tour, is singing. Great, powerful, perfectly on-pitch caterwauling. The kind of singing that makes you realize that most of the singing you hear in your life is not and never will be as good as this. When tenor J. Mark McVey, playing lead character Jean Valjean, sings the haunting "Bring Him Home" in the second act, your ears will write him thank-you notes.
Les Miz is called a musical, but it's really an opera based on a concept album. It became a hit show, one of the biggest in Broadway history, a quarter century ago when Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel's French text was adapted into English for the staging by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. The score is by Claude-Michel Schönberg; lyrics are by Herbert Kretzmer.
The touring production at the Winspear is one of the biggest things they've had there since Moby-Dick, with masses of scenery (by Matt Kinley) and magical high-tech 3-D projections of charcoal-smudgy images of Paris inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. Street scenes transform into interiors and then into the underground murk of the Parisian sewers, while buildings, barricades and brothels roll in and out with nary a pause for scene changes. (Something classical opera continues to do to an exhausting degree.)
New orchestrations by Chris Jahnke have brightened up the sound of Les Miz for this tour, though the 15-piece orchestra directed by Robert Billig doesn't wield nearly enough heft for such a behemoth of a show. (We've grown spoiled by Lyric Stage's full 35-piece pits.) With about a half-hour trimmed from the running time, the once-confusing overlapping stories in Les Miz now move to the fore more clearly. Most scenes click by at lickety-split pace. (It still comes in at just under three hours.)
Even if you've memorized every note of Les Miz, you probably won't miss what's missing this time around. And the young cast — particularly blond looker Jeremy Hays as the student Enjolras and gorgeous Chasten Harmon as the older Eponine — provides some sexy oomph to a show that in previous tours has felt stodgy and leaden.
More relevant than ever to our current crises of poverty and powerlessness among the 99 percent, Les Misérables follows the saga of the noble-hearted Valjean, subjected to 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. Released from prison, he builds a new life thanks to an act of kindness by a bishop (James Zannelli). Under a false identity, Valjean can't escape the gaze of a suspicious policeman, Javert (Andrew Varela), bent on exposing his criminal past.
When prostitute Fantine (Betsy Morgan) dies in Valjean's arms, he adopts her young daughter, Cosette (Kylie McVey, alternating with Juliana Simon). Fifteen years later, Cosette (now Jenny Latimer) falls in love with a radical student, Marius (Max Quinlan). Javert continues to pursue Valjean, who decides to reveal his true identity to Marius, thus endangering them both. The paths of all these characters converge during the violent, student-led, anti-monarchist insurrection known as the June Rebellion. The finale includes a wedding scene so pretty you could pin it to a board on Pinterest.
This is history told through fiction made into grand musical theater. The sheer size of the production will satisfy Les Miz aficionados. First-timers will feel the satisfying gut-punch of watching a stage packed with actors and singers who can hit impossible notes even as their characters are taking their final breaths. (We'll have to wait till next year to see how the movie version turns out, with Hugh Jackman as Valjean and Russell Crowe as Javert.)
The irony is not lost on some of us that this story of peasants coming together to revolt against a system that rewards only the rich and powerful is being performed in a fancy opera house for an audience able to afford $100 tickets. Lexus drivers get preferred parking, with valets at the ready.
"Master of the house, doling out the charm/Ready with a handshake and an open palm," sang George Constanza on Seinfeld, unable to get the catchiest tune from Les Miz out of his head. Note that the ushers at the Winspear don't accept tips. But the valet parkers do.
The 1991 play is American playwright Hirson's modern homage to Molière, more or less. He's written it in rhymed couplets in the rhythm of "Mary had a little lamb." Two hours of rhymed couplets, if you manage to stay awake, will work anyone's last nerve. Much of the audience at T3's opening night performance succumbed to the sing-songy dialogue by dozing intermittently. There were more bobbing heads in that room than you see at prime minister's question time.
Plotwise, there isn't much to hang your wig on. A snooty 17th century French court actor, Elomire (played by Jakie Cabe, a wonderful performer stuck in yet another terrible T3 role), finds himself in competition with a hack actor and writer named Valere (Bradley Campbell, wearing a curly auburn Cowardly Lion hairpiece).
After a dinner party, Elomire is subjected to a 30-minute monologue by Valere, extolling his own virtues as the writer of plays called The Dying Clown and Death by Cheese.
Valere is an egotistical idiot, saying things like "There's nothing but a space between my ears/One time I had amnesia in Algiers." That's actual dialogue in La Bête. Now multiply that by 120 minutes.
The 400-line opening speech by Valere should be hilarious — those who saw great British actor Mark Rylance perform the role in the 2010 Broadway revival say he made it a scream — but Campbell merely achieves hirsute silliness. He plays Valere as a cross between Bert Lahr and Louie Anderson.
An elderly princess (Georgia Clinton) toddles on to exacerbate the rivalry between Elomire and Valere. Much gesturing with white handkerchiefs ensues. And about another hour of the rhyming crapoiserie, which resorts to such lazy wordplay as "Cleopatra/tit-for-tatra."
La Bête argues that high culture will always be trumped by low, that the Valeres will eventually make the Elomires obsolete. That's true enough. We see it in all media. And from that Theatre Three should learn its lesson. Instead of going for high art, they're far better equipped for Death by Cheese.