Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Theatre review: "Les Misérables" road company.

As you may have heard, a new traveling stage production of Les Misérables has stopped here for a few days even though the current Oscar-nominated film is causing quite a stir.

also might have learned that this 25th anniversary version has been revised physically and musically. I wasn’t aware of how it has been changed, never seeing any complete version before. A deliberate choice. Witnessing the first act during a 2005 performance at Benedum Center, I left at intermission, finding the music and lyrics nearly empty, the staging obvious and the story-telling simpleminded. With no interest in seeing it or hearing it again. But I've tried again, being perhaps overly prejudiced these past eight years.

This time I found much to admire, despite the songs. And it turns out that a lot of what impressed me is different from previous concepts, learning so from on-line reading.

This take looks great. The sets and staging, for example, have been re-conceived, as adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird modifying  their work on the initial production. The sets have character, giving depth to the story. And projections from Fifty-Nine Productions come across as remarkably inventive. Moreover, the physical elements, the picturesque tableaux, the effects, show much imagination and creativity. Credit Michael Ashcroft with that as well.

There has also been a change in how the music sounds. The new orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke stay full of color, with everything played superbly by 14 live musicians doubling and tripling on as many as 25 instruments.

They make Claude-Michel Schönberg’s pseudo-operatic score seem better than I thought it could be. A few decent melodies actually crop up now and then amid the sung-through two and half hours worth of generic, repetitive melodies and recitatives. Plus superb singing by many members of the cast make much of that sound as good as it possibly can. Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics, however, remain trivial and obvious. It would be interesting to know if the original French ones by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel offer something more original.

It seems, at times, as if the directors were aiming more for melodrama than something deep and human, despite Schönberg’s attempts to suggest serious music. Peter Lockyer, for example, tends to play Jean Valjean with histrionics instead of truthfulness. But he makes up for those lapses with supreme vocal talent and range. Meanwhile, as the presumably evil Madame Thénardier, Shawna M. Hamic weighs in with heavy overplaying perhaps striving for comedy but looking as if she’s doing her own thing instead of melding with the serious playing by everyone else on stage. 

The elemental telling of the tale may not have changed, but this immense cast gives it their best, looking and sounding fine despite the limitations of the songs and script.

Les Misérables continues through Sunday, January 27 at Benedum Center, downtown. 412/456-4800 or

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