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If I didn’t remember padding around the screen porch in my pajamas, yowling “One Day More” while the neighbors and the parents and the Afghan hounds looked on with what I recognize in retrospect as gay panic, I’d find it difficult to believe that I graduated feckin’ high school the year Les Misérables came out. (God on high, hear my prayer: I am sooo old.)
I was off to college that fall of 1985, headed for a vocal-performance major and drunk on music and madly taken with the soaring pop-opera melodies and the sung-through sweep of Les Miz; it would take a few years, and a lot of Sondheim, before I understood why serious musical-theater types sneered when I burbled about seeing it. I have sobered up since, to be sure, but like Leontyne Price’s gorgeously inappropriate readings of the Liebestod and “In Questa Reggia,” the Les Miz London cast album is one of those recordings that I, after the fashion of a small duck, remain hopelessly imprinted on.
Which is why, last week, I might have been the only critic in town who didn’t especially resent having to trudge down to the National Theatre on a particularly bitter winter night for the opening of what producer Cameron Mackintosh promises is the last, the final, the positively ultimate D.C. booking of Les Misérables that his organization has plans for “at the moment.” And maybe why, having sat through approximately nine billion revolutions of that infernal turntable, and having lost track of how many times those snippets of Jean Valjean’s angry opening “Soliloquy” keep cropping up, I can report that the last, the final, the positively ultimate D.C. booking of Les Misérables (maybe) ain’t half bad.
The tour that’s parked in Washington through the end of January has been bus-and-trucking since 1988, and it’s been nearly a decade since the famous 10th-anniversary bloodbath that saw half the cast chucked out of the Broadway production by an impresario impatient with the flat, flabby relic it had become. There’s been plenty of time for things to get stale again. But Jason Moore, the Avenue Q director and Mackintosh delegate who’s responsible for parachuting in every few weeks to make sure they don’t, seems to be pretty serious about his job; it’s an energetic ensemble piece going on at the National, with conductor R. Andrew Bryan keeping his beat crisp and his performers disciplined—and between the cast’s clean diction and Andrew Bruce’s careful sound mix, both the characters and the complicated plot come across more clearly than I remember.
That plot, you’ll remember, tracks hero Valjean, a one-time convict who (1) vows to redeem himself after a kind bishop saves him from a hasty decision; (2) breaks parole to escape the stigma that comes with the prison-leave ticket he’s forced to carry; (3) becomes a respected factory owner and small-town mayor under his new name; (4) reveals himself, in a Christlike act of selflessness, when the merciless Inspector Javert, who’s never stopped pursuing him, mistakenly arrests another man; (5) makes good on his oath to rescue and raise the daughter of a dying woman whose degradation was indirectly his fault; and (6) escapes Javert and flees to Paris. Which is where the rest of Act 1 takes place.
No, really: That’s barely a third of the action of Les Miz, and even at that, purists have long complained that Alain Boublil’s musical adaptation dispenses with too much of the scope and texture that makes Victor Hugo’s epic such a literary monument. Those quibbles aside, it’s still a dense, sprawling show, and a long one, so clarity has always been something of an accomplishment—and the production at the National proves tight and tidy. There’s raucousness to spare among the whores at Montreuil-sur-Mer and the lowlifes at Thénardier’s tavern, and there’s many a rousing heroic among the lusty youth once the action careers toward Paris and the student uprising of June 1832. And for all his Lloyd Webber–ish reliance on musical restatement, Claude-Michel Schönberg has at least tried to architect some thematic underpinnings for his variations: The prostitutes’ “Lovely Ladies” starts bawdy and angry, turning lyrical as Fantine slips into despair; the same melody, once the uprising has failed and the poor of Paris wake to nothing but more of the same, becomes the melancholy morning-after musing of “Turning,” which starts lyrical and builds into a jangling, bitter gavotte. Not sophisticated, exactly, but not stupid, either.
Not everything is thrilling, to be sure: As Valjean, Randal Keith acts with all the subtlety of an aging opera singer, and his singing, especially in the iconic “Bring Him Home” lullaby, relies too much on a falsetto croon he’s clearly rather fond of. Melissa Lyons’ honeyed soprano makes her tomboyish Eponine pretty winning, but a tendency to push the top notes carried her off pitch on press night. And that crisp conducting, though it undoubtedly helps keep a big show firmly on track, seemed a little straitjacketing now and again; in memory, anyway, some of Les Miz’s lusher melodies benefit from the chance to open up and bloom a little.
But Joan Almedilla does fine, fragile work as Fantine, Robert Hunt’s Javert is attractively cruel and handsomely sung, and Victor Wallace turns in a stirring, idealistic Enjolras, he of the blood-red flag and the picturesquely fatal sprawl down the back of that rotating barricade. Adam Jacobs makes a sweet-faced, sweet-voiced Marius, the callow romantic who falls at first sight for Valjean’s adopted daughter; his similarly uncomplicated Cosette is Leslie Henstock, whose light, slightly metallic soprano sounds its best in “In My Life,” the quartet the twosome sings with Valjean and the lovelorn Eponine. Fabio Polanco and Jennifer Butt (who created her part on Broadway and who brings a kind of daffy grace in her pratfalls) are appropriately, amusingly scabrous as the grasping Thénardiers.
And the big numbers, the “Red and Black” and the “Do You Hear the People Sing” and the “One Day More” that brings down the first-act curtain, with something like 30 full-throated Frenchmen striding in formation toward the footlights with that red flag flourishing defiance over their heads and those driving arpeggiated chords thundering behind them—ah, well, let’s just say that I had a hard time, 20 years on, not yowling along. And that, having had the chance to bid ’em a fond, indulgent farewell, I hope they’ll stay gone for a good long time.CP