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Your pre-packaged theater product has arrived. The national tour of Les Miserables is back at the National Theatre, signed, sealed, and delivered straight from uberproducer Cameron Mackintosh to you. Only this summer, what with Kosovo, it’s timely. Sometimes the hype makes it hard to remember that Les Mis isn’t simply the best little war musical in history; it chronicles one of the basest and bloodiest periods of French history.
But, foremost, this is a road show, and the real challenge for the company is not tackling difficult music or memorizing lines, but keeping the thing fresh and exciting for audience after audience in city after city. For any touring actor, after raising that hand to the left for three counts, oh, say, 40 or 50 times, the novelty wears off, and the real work kicks in. In this particular production, the soloists give their all nearly without fail, and, surprisingly, only during the most rousing group numbers do you get the feeling that you’re watching workers do their jobs rather than characters living their lives.
Most of us know the plot and can hum along to most of the songs from their overexposure on Muzak and PBS. Perhaps you saw last year’s movie version, or best of all, read the original book by Victor Hugo. With all the key chains and T-shirts it moves, Les Mis is a marketing miracle. Its omnipresent logo, bearing an emaciated waif who makes Kate Moss look fat and happy, is frighteningly commercial: It’s sickening to imagine that, in 200 years, it would be politically (or morally) correct to plaster coffee mugs with the faces of Kosovar refugee children.
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But it’s the wartime romanticism and survival stories that give Les Mis audiences their vicarious thrills. Since its 1987 Broadway premiere (and subsequent Tony award for best musical), the show has been seen by more than 40 million people worldwide, and since you may be one of them, I’ll spare you most of the plot synopsis. Besides, it appears in chronological order in the program, which is helpful, because without it you might not really know what’s going on—the inevitable result of condensing a 1,200-page book into 27 musical numbers.
Tableau extraordinaire! At curtain we are confronted with a chain gang, out of which emerges the newly paroled Jean Valjean (Ivan Rutherford, who recently played the role in the 10th-anniversary Broadway production). As Valjean walks on to his new life, notwithstanding a minor incident involving a bishop and some silver candlesticks, the empty stage spins like a giant Lazy Susan. After seemingly dozens of revolutions, it is apparent that the trademark rotating Les Mis set is more an excuse to avoid the work of blocking than a device to denote the passage of time and distance. As for Rutherford’s Valjean, the man can sing. From his “Soliloquy” to “Who Am I?,” his post-prison soul-searching is honest and inspiring, although his acting is just gravy compared with his killer pipes.
Ostensibly as a result of the candlestick incident, Valjean is forced to break his parole and become a fugitive from the law, by which time we have already made the acquaintance of Javert (Todd Alan Johnson)—Tommy Lee Jones to Valjean’s Harrison Ford—who will dog Valjean for years to come. Unfortunately, this subplot is where this production falls flat: Johnson’s portrayal of Javert is plastic and cartoonish. More unfortunately, this subplot drives the entire action of the play. Sure, Johnson can sing, too, but he uses neither his voice nor his visage to create any sense of urgency about the chase he devotes his entire life to completing. When Javert finally kicks the bucket, no one silently cheers that the bad guy is dead, because no one really cares.
As a foil to the milquetoast Javert, the ultrapassionate and tortured prostitute Fantine makes a welcome addition to Valjean’s life, trusting him to be the godfather of the daughter she will not live to raise. Fantine is honestly and touchingly played by Joan Almedilla, who adds significant star power to the cast, having played Kim in Miss Saigon on Broadway. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is one of the show’s best, a testament to the actor’s ability to project toughness and vulnerability at the same time. (But after Fantine dies, Almedilla is not so subtly recycled as an anonymous musketeer for the revolutionaries, an unprofessional bait-and-switch that seems unnecessary given the enormous cast.) Meanwhile, we get the lackluster all-hooker dance-hall number “Lovely Ladies.” While the women of the ensemble all boast principal-worthy voices, their expressions seem passive and somewhat bored.
Just before the now-monied Valjean rescues Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Maggie Martinsen alternating with Jordan Leigh Houghton), possibly the world’s cutest child, we hear her sing possibly the world’s saddest song, “Castle on a Cloud.” Martinsen does it well; she’s a pro, but she eschews the forced vibrato characteristic of so many stage kids. Her Kewpie-doll face, ostensibly the one in the logo, almost justifies the sale of all those coffee mugs.
The same sort of low energy that does in the hooker ensemble also hampers the group number “Master of the House.” For the song that, on a good night, should ring through your head during intermission, it’s pretty wan. Cosette’s former evil foster parents, the Thenardiers (Sharron Matthews and J.P. Dougherty), manage to be amusing in this number yet annoying later in their vaudevillian “Beggars at the Feast,” but at least they’re acting. The rest of the company, perhaps dizzy from spinning on the Lazy Susan, give little more than their voices to the audience.
Les Mis is not without its own bizarre love triangle. The gorgeous “A Heart Full of Love” ranks as one of the show’s most difficult songs, but the soloists make it seem effortless. Eponine Thenardier (Sutton Foster) is lamenting the loss of her crush’s attention, and her crush, Marius (Tim Howar), is, per ironic plot twist No. 7.5, in love with the now-grown Cosette (Regan Thiel), whom Eponine treated like crap during Cosette’s tenure as her parents’ skivvy. Both Foster and Thiel have remarkable voices, but Thiel seems inappropriately cast—her Cosette, with her curly blond puff of hair and innocent, saucerlike eyes, appears more like someone out of Oklahoma! than a victim of child abuse; and it seems that Thiel is acting young to compensate for the gap between Cosette’s age and the actor’s own. Foster, on the contrary, is so engaging and quick-witted, you may wonder why Marius would ever choose the overly wound-up Cosette.
Foster, as the beautiful and doomed Eponine, could bring gooseflesh to the arms of even the most wizened musical-theater hater. She opens Act 2 in the vocal stratosphere with the unforgettable “On My Own.” Too bad Howar’s Marius can’t quite maintain the same energy level during her death scene. Surprisingly, he redeems himself with “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” a riveting eulogy to friends gone.
In stark contrast to the beautiful torch songs, a revolution is going down for much of the play. And people die. But that’s what war’s about. Unlike the countless glorifications of violent death in television and film, the horrors of war in Les Miserables are portrayed with tenderness, reverence, and anger. Though not every group number manages this level of profundity, the solos and the spectacle make the show what it is. How anyone can listen to Valjean sing “Bring Him Home” and stand by watching men and women being sent off to war is beyond me, and likely beyond the understanding of most war-ravaged nations. Just ask the guys who are buried on Omaha Beach. CP