Wednesday, September 24, 2014
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REVIEW: Les Miserables

Like a grand diva who can't get enough farewell tours, Les Misérables - the stage musical version - is again on a tour stop in Philadelphia against many odds. This time it arrives amid formidable competition from the current film version, notes David Patrick Stearns, who says it more than justifies itself.

REVIEW: Les Miserables

By David Patrick Stearns

INQUIRER MUSIC CRITIC

Like a grand diva who can’t get enough farewell tours, Les Misérables — the stage musical version — is again on a tour stop in Philadelphia against many odds. This time it arrives amid formidable competition from the current film version that faithfully follows the musical about oppressed masses and idealistic up-risings in post-revolutionary France. By now, the touring stage shows have a fraction of the scenery seen in the Broadway original. The film is lavishly produced with major stars and has a smaller admission fee.

Yet Wednesday night’s opening at the packed Academy of Music clearly justified itself, thanks to a bright, unjaded cast at the top of its collective game and exercising a freedom of interpretation not always seen in touring companies that typically seek to reproduce the original-cast experience. You could swear that this production is behaving in conscious competition with the film, showing it can be just as effective on its own terms.

The two entities say different things. The film is a people story — more about the inner turmoil of ex-convict Jean Valjean and the police officer Javert who hunts him — with lots of tight closeups and heavy emoting to match the broad-stroke grandeur of the music. The stage version is more about the larger society. Valjean illustrates the power of individual responsibility in the difference he makes to those around him. Also more apparent are the political power dynamics, which seem more current now than when the show was new in 1985. With religious references sprinkled throughout the script, this is a cautionary tale of theocracy.

Though in the spirit of the Broadway original, the tour is redirected by Laurence Connor and James Powell without the convenience of the stage turntable that once allowed cinematic scene changes. Instead, modern projections are used, but in conjunction with theatrical alchemy. If anything, Javert’s suicidal jump from the bridge is more effective: He’s suspended in mid-air like a scarecrow, but with watery projections all around him. A key death scene — I won’t spoil it by saying which one — now takes place offstage and is depicted entirely by sound effects, lights and the stricken reaction of those onstage.

A more obvious difference is pacing: The stage version proceeds from scene to scene, making dramatic points in a matter of seconds, while the film spends much more time setting up and investigating relationships and thus sometimes drags. The show also has peaks and valleys; the film doesn’t often let you breath.

That’s not to say the current stage cast lacked the needed nastiness. The roguish tavern owner Thenardier is often played as a buffoon, but not by Timothy Gulan, who is formidably malevolent, representing one of many cancers eating this society from within. Javert can seem obsessively unbalanced; as played by the physically imposing Andrew Varela, he’s a creature of unshakeable conviction. Peter Lockyer may be a bit young for Jean Valjean — he’s perfectly convincing in the early scenes but much less so in his later years. Also, Erin Clemons (Eponine) isn’t well served by the production: Her grimy makeup obscures her features and her death scene comes out of nowhere. As Cosette, Siri Howard is a tad generic.

But the biggest challenge was met by the best triumph: Genevieve Leclerc’s Fantine makes you forget the film’s superb Ann Hathaway. From the first notes of “I Dreamed a Dream,” she is mesmerizing.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

Through Jan. 13 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets: $25-$115. 215-731-3333, www.kimmelcenter.org.

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