Theater review: 'Les Misérables' at the Ahmanson Theatre
The fugitive is back. The long-running Jean Valjean and his mega-musical, "Les Misérables," have roared into town, smoking up the Ahmanson Theatre with haze, hit numbers and undoubtedly big box office.
This accomplished and reorchestrated 25th-anniversary production lacks surprise, but delivers on most of its promises. It's big. It's loud. The singing is good. You will probably cry. You will go home and watch Susan Boyle sing "I Dreamed a Dream" on YouTube again and realize Simon Cowell would be dead on as Javert in the movie version now in pre-production.
If you haven't already grabbed your iPad to order tickets, or yawned and turned the page to see where "The Hangover II" is playing, let’s review the basics of this musical of Victor Hugo's sprawling tale of redemption.
After doing 19 years of hard time for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean (J. Mark McVey) leaves the chain gang only to find that freedom is equally pitiless. Shown unexpected kindness by a bishop (Benjamin Magnuson), he builds a new life and false identity under the suspicious gaze of hard-line cop Javert (Andrew Varela).
When prostitute Fantine (Betsy Morgan) literally drops at his feet, Valjean offers her the mercy he was once shown himself and vows to care for her young child, Cosette (Katherine Forrester, alternating with Anastasia Korbal). Fifteen years later, Cosette (now Jenny Latimer) falls for radical student Marius (Justin Scott Brown). But Javert won't rest, and his pursuit of Valjean and family collides with the Paris uprisings of 1832.
Apparently this anniversary production has been retooled: story clarified, music tweaked, staging reconceived by directors Laurence Connor and James Powell. One sure plus are set designer Matt Kinley's moody paintings projected on the upstage screen. With bruised colors bleeding into shadow, they evoke an industrial slum where you'd find Dickens' Madame Defarge or Poe's Dupin solving the murders in the Rue Morgue. The famous barricade still makes its appearance, but it's a little at odds with the fancy 3-D animation that takes us into the sewers.
Like "Tommy," "Les Misérables" began as a concept album. For all their spectacle, these musicals are ultimately internal stories of Christ-like figures, and the drama lives in the music rather than the narrative. Claude-Michel Schönberg's score has both its sublime and ridiculous moments, while Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics can feel weirdly impersonal in a way that a Sondheim song rarely does. But this team can build an ensemble number like nobody's business, and the soaring finale of Act I, "One Day More," would probably get a 10 from Verdi.
Despite opening-night sound glitches, the 15-piece orchestra led by Robert Billig sounded crisp and powerful, and the Ahmanson, notoriously troubled by bad acoustics, felt thrillingly resonant (I predict low usage of listening devices, with the exception of earplugs).
The production is also blessed with a compelling lead performance. The original Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, had a coiled Gaelic toughness that gave the ex-con street cred; you believed he'd deck someone after a few pints. J. Mark McVey lacks that dynamic physicality and class rage, but he anchors the show with an anguished gravity that gives this three-hour behemoth a soul. From his opening "Soliloquy," he has command of the stage, and his other showstoppers, "Who Am I?" and "Bring Him Home," genuinely connect (and are beautifully framed by Paule Constable's superb lighting). Varela takes his time to find Javert, but he's a credible adversary, and Chasten Harmon is a vivid Éponine, in unrequited love with Marius.
Despite the immediacy of certain performances, generic touches sometimes betray a touring show. Prostitutes grind predictably. Jokes are over-punctuated. Artfully smudged children pluck our well-worked heartstrings. At hour three, visual fatigue sets in: In too many crowd scenes, blocking consists of simply lining people up downstage. (The student scene in the ABC Café is the notable exception, but that’s probably due to the kinetic energy of the fine Jeremy Hays as the revolutionary Enjolras.) And unless McVey is injured, the production’s fight captain might want to intensify the tepid scuffle between Valjean and Javert at Fantine's bedside.
Eyebrows were raised last year when Center Theatre Group announced its borrowed-from-Broadway season. It's unlikely you'd see the original cast of "God of Carnage" at the Pantages, but "Les Misérables" is a different story. Let's hope CTG uses its take from this crowd-pleaser to fund work that surprises the audience instead of merely reassuring it -- more along the lines of the playful mind-bender "Method Gun," now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
But you don’t go to "Les Miz" for Stoppardian wit or innovative staging. You go for the stirring crowd scenes and the famous solos; to share it with your kids or your date or to remember where you were when you first saw it. It's a delivery system. If what arrives is more sound than fury, the show remains an epic bang for your buck.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
'Les Misérables' Ahmanson Theatre, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. 2 p.m. June 30 and July 28, no 6:30 p.m. performance July 3 and 31. Ends July 31. $20-$130. Contact: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org. Running time: three hours.
Upper photo: An ensemble scene from "Les Miserables" at the Ahmanson Theatre. Credit: Wally Skallij / Los Angeles Times
Lower photo: J. Mark McVey as Jean Valjean. Credit: Wally Skallij / Los Angeles Times