THEATER REVIEW

‘Les Misérables’ packs a punch, even when the show is less than it should be

Updated: 2012-12-06T03:32:10Z

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

Well, I have to say I really miss the turntable.

The touring production of “Les Misérables” that opened Tuesday at the Music Hall boasts nice performances, but there were moments when the technical aspects of the production undermined the efforts of some excellent actors.

One of the best musical performances of the show is “On My Own,” sung by Briana Carlson-Goodman as Eponine, but on opening night the set behind her seemed to jiggle like a bowl of Jell-O. The reason, presumably, is that set changes were going on back there, causing the atmospheric projections overlaid on the physical scenery to shimmer as though we were watching an out-of-focus photograph.

That’s why I miss the turntable. The original production of “Les Misérables,” directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, utilized a revolving stage to achieve fluid, cinematic effects. This show has no turntable, although some of projections designed to look like charcoal drawings achieve their own kind of cinematic energy.

But the beauty of the original scenic design by John Napier was its ability to show two sides of a set simply by spinning the turntable — the stage equivalent of a reverse angle in a movie.

In this production, we see only one side of the barricade manned by student revolutionaries, which means one of the most poignant moments of the narrative happens beyond the view of the audience. When little Gavroche (played splendidly Tuesday by Hayden Wall) volunteers to sneak beyond the barricade to retrieve ammunition, he is cut down by a bullet. In the original staging of the show, we witnessed his final moments on stage. In this production, we hear his last words floating up from behind the set.

So while I found plenty of things to criticize, including an orchestra that sounded a little ragged, what this production makes clear is the enduring power of the material. “Les Miserables” works its magic on an audience, soliciting strong emotional responses even when the execution leaves something to be desired.

The show’s provenance includes an original score by Claude-Michel Schonberg and a libretto in French by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. The English-language version has lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and contributions by the poet James Fenton. The show feels long, but the adaptation of Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel skips along, sometimes traversing decades in a matter of minutes.

But the writers stayed true to the essence of the story. It’s a tale of redemption, as the ex-convict Jean Valjean seeks to atone for his criminal past with deeds of heroism and self-sacrifice. The tragedy, sadness and triumphs inherent in the story make it an emotionally potent ride for theatergoers. The opening-night audience rewarded the company with a standing ovation.

Co-directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have assembled a superior cast. Peter Lockyer carries the production as Jean Valjean, aging convincingly and distilling the character’s passions and inner conflicts. His performance of “Bring Him Home,” one of the show’s most memorable songs, was a thing of beauty.

Valjean’s nemesis, the fanatical police inspector Javert, is played earnestly by Andrew Varela, a tenor who possesses the best voice in the cast. Other nice work is registered by Genevieve Leclerc as Fantine, Devin Ilaw as Marius and Lauren Wiley as Cossette. Jason Forbach, who has a commanding tenor, is an exciting presence as Enjolras, the leader of the student rebels. The most entertaining characters in the show, inevitably, are the cynical inn-keeper Thenardier and his materialistic wife, who are played in high style by Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic.

The costumes by Andreane Neofitou make a major contribution, as does the lighting by Paule Constable.

This engagement is nicely timed to whet viewers’ appetites for the long-awaited, star-laden movie version of the show, which opens Christmas Day.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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