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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 6 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 27
Les Misérables: the dream continues
Arts & Entertainment
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Les Misérables: the dream continues

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

LES MISÉRABLES
5TH AVENUE THEATER
Through July 8


The musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Les Misérables is known throughout the world. Seen by more than 50 million people in 38 countries, the Cameron Mackintosh phenomenon continues to please audiences everywhere. Now celebrating the 25th anniversary of its London premiere, the musical sweeps its way into Seattle and is as thrilling as it ever has been.

The story is an epic one, but ultimately it is about redemption. After years on a chain gang, Jean Valjean is released on parole. When people show him no mercy, he moves to a foreign town, reinvents himself with a new identity, and eventually becomes manager of a factory. After witnessing an injustice to one of his workers, Fantine, he vows to look after the dying woman's child and raise her as his own. When a pious policeman named Javert discovers his identity, Valjean takes his adopted daughter, Cosette, and begins many years of running from the law.

The city of Paris' politics and changing views are mingled throughout the years around the two men. As tension grows in the city, Cosette meets and falls in love with a young student named Marius. As revolution explodes around them, Valjean eventually saves Marius from an injury on the barricades, makes peace with the ever-pursuing Javert, and lives long enough to see his adopted daughter's happiness.

It sounds more confusing than it is to follow on stage. The music is sweeping and pulls the audience in from start to finish. Despite the operatic nature of the score, one never gets lost and it's easy to follow what's happening.

Two cast members pretty much carry this show. Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyer) is the man trying to stay one step ahead of the law, and weighing the true meaning of right and wrong. Whether he is crying out in agony and desperation or singing with the pure sentiments of the heart, Lockyer's vocals can be clearly heard and understood - somewhat of a rarity for theater acoustics. He delivers the goods and easily takes us along on his epic journey. Javert (Andrew Varela), the man in pursuit of Valjean, is so blinded by his need to uphold the law that any sense of justice escapes him completely. Varela's voice is a deep baritone that cradles each of the songs he is given. In duets with Lockyer, the two voices blend harmoniously, both contrasting and complimenting each other. During his standout song, the haunting 'Soliloquy,' Varela's control throughout proves that he equally carries the show.

The standout supporting cast members all have their individual moments to shine, and they do. Betsy Morgan (Fantine) takes her own hold on the classic 'I Dreamed a Dream' and emotes so well you'd be hard-pressed to find a dry eye in the audience. Briana Carlson-Goodman (Éponine) brings out the shyness of her character very well. Her voice is nicely suited for the heart-breaking ballad of unrequited love, 'On My Own.' Max Quinlan (Marius) sends a chill through the audience when singing the lament 'Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.' But as usual, it is the innkeeper and his wife - the Thénardiers - who get the most thunderous applause with the crowd-pleasing 'Master of the House.' (It should be noted that the wife, played by Natalie Beck, steals the scene with her perfectly timed, over-the-top performance.) Each one of these featured roles stands out easily, as does most of the cast itself.

I do have one quibble, however. In an effort to keep the show fresh and audiences awake during this epic musical (it runs just shy of three hours, including intermission), about 15 years ago the producers decided to increase the tempo of the music slightly. While this is done well, it is extremely noticeable to anyone familiar with the original songs (and there were many releases by different artists) or possessing either original-cast recording. This production continues that practice, and it's unfortunate. The original ballads are so beautiful and when they are sped up it changes the emotion they convey. You don't want a love duet (even if it is a death scene) rushed through. It's like watching the difference between 'A Little Fall of Rain' and a rainstorm - they are both beautiful but they bring out a completely different set of feelings in those who watch them.

An innovation that does work well is the use of video projection with the scenery. Using what seem to be painted curtains, the scenery stands out to set the mood in a much better (and much more effective) way than with painted cardboard and wooden sets. It brought the audience into the surroundings immediately. As the characters move through the sewers of Paris, the background film projection does also - a highly effective technique. The projection took the place of the show's iconic turntable.

All in all, the 5th Avenue's production is stellar and shows us why this play has become a classic.

Les Misérables first opened in London's West End theater district on October 8, 1985. It was nominated for a total of five Olivier Awards, winning two. Currently it is still playing in the West End, and is the longest-running musical in London history. The Broadway production (with several leading actors reprising their roles) opened on March 12, 1987, and ran on the Great White Way until January 6, 2008. After winning a total of eight Tony Awards (with 12 nominations), it holds the title of the third-longest-running play in Broadway history.

Two concert productions of the musical (the 10th and 25th anniversaries) are available on CD and DVD. A new feature film is scheduled for release in December by Universal Pictures.

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