Good news for the fans of “Les Miserables”: Producer Cameron Mackintosh is presenting a perfectly splendid and newly envisioned production in celebration of the musical’s 25th anniversary. A national tour has begun with the American premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Purists should not panic at the idea of the widely adored musical being newly envisioned. Just don’t expect to see the famous/familiar story unfold on a turntable. I’m not inferring that any serious tampering has been done to what has become a classic of modern musical theater. Some judicious cutting has evidently taken place over the years as the original production clocked in at three hours and 15 minutes. The Broadway revival ran exactly three hours, and the current production runs two hours and 45 minutes.
If it was a little startling to see this musical revived on Broadway in 2006 only three and one half years after the original production had closed after amassing a total of 6,680 performances, it isn’t as startling to report that it has a striking new look. For starters there are the extraordinary scenic and image designs created by Matt Kinley that are inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo — yes he who wrote the book. Hugo was, indeed, a talented visual artist who chose to keep his paintings from public view lest they draw attention away from his literary works.
Undoubtedly you will be awed by the display of scenic designs, slides, and moving projections, all of which suggest Hugo’s technique using charcoal, ink, and soot, even coffee. Kinley has honored the mostly lost work of Hugo with his dark and moody, mostly colorless, designs that evoke Paris’s darkest streets, the factories, smoke stacks, even its foreboding sewers. These are enhanced by Paule Constable’s atmospheric lighting. But this is not a case of leaving a show whistling the scenery. Although this is a touring production, nothing about it looks on-the-cheap, especially the physical production, including the obligatory blockade. The costume designs by Andreane Neofitour, particularly for the wedding feast, are an eyeful.
This hugely successful musical adaptation of Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel is evidently saying/singing something to a lot of people. Be assured that this darkly vivid 19th century operatically essayed dramatic tableau framed by the student rebellion of 1832 in post-Revolution France, courtesy of composers Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (with additional material by James Fenton) remains, to the best of my memory, just as convoluted and complexly constructed as ever.
The most gratifying news is that African-American Lawrence Clayton is giving a dramatically convincing and vocally impressive performance as the fugitive Frenchman Jean Valjean. The husky Clayton has a vocal range that decisively spans the octaves of “Bring Him Home” and empowers his defining aria “Who Am I.” Andrew Varela is not about to even insinuate he has a heart as the paranoid mission-obsessed police inspector Javert. Varela is a veteran of the original Broadway engagement of “Les Mis” and played a variety of roles toward the end of the engagement. His familiarity with the material doesn’t keep him from giving an excitingly individualized edge to the character.
The supporting cast is unquestionably up to the demands of the often angst-driven arias. It is easy to see how the public continues to respond to the impassioned tenacity of the music as well as to the unsettling turbulence of the times. No matter how familiar the score is to you, it is hard to resist the rousing anthem “Do You Hear the People Sing,” the romantic declaration “A Heart Full of Love,” as expressed by Cosette (Jenny Latimer), Marius (Jon Fletcher, who replaced the ailing Scott Brown on opening night) and Eponine (Chasten Harmon), and the stimulating “One Day More” as sung by the company at the end of Act I.
It isn’t just his head of blonde curls that makes Jeremy Hays stand out as the feisty and formidable Enjoiras, the leader of the workers’ and students’ uprising. The ill-fated Fantine is played by Betsy Morgan who conveys the inherent poignancy of the role especially in the heartbreaking aria “I Dreamed a Dream.”
That “Les Miserables,” under the laudable co-direction of Laurence Connor and James Powell, manages to both wallow in and swallow up its melodramatic excesses without making the audience cringe is quite remarkable. And that we are emotionally moved by it is even more remarkable. Parody only rears its grotesque shape in the form of Thenardier (Michael Kostroff) and Madame Thenardier (Shawna M. Hamic) as the terrifyingly mercenary innkeeper and his wife. But we are also grateful for their comedic restraint. Would that the 14 musicians in the pit under the direction of Peter White use a little more restraint as they often overpower the singers. But perhaps this is the fault of the sound engineer.
The path and moral transformation of ex-convict Jean Valjean as he is relentlessly pursued over the years by his nemesis, Javert, all the while protecting and bringing hope to those he loves, is fraught with despair and danger. But through all of “Les Miserables,” we see the virtue of Valjean’s irrepressible need for redemption and his unwavering resolve to live a better life.
There is no denying that “Les Miserables” has become a permanent fixture in musical theater in the same way that “Carmen” and “La Boheme” are in the world of opera. And as this revival assures us, it is able to make the rounds even without a turntable.
“Les Miserables,” through Thursday, December 30, Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn. $25 to $92. 973-376-4343.