The 25th-anniversary restaging of the musical "Les Miserables" refreshes the global stage hit based on Victor Hugo's novel of romance and revolution. Runs through Aug. 27 at 5th Avenue Theatre.
THEATER REVIEW | How do you attract patrons to a 25-year-old blockbuster show they’ve seen multiple times — or heard a lot about, but skipped? Producer Cameron Mackintosh found a way with the new version of “Les Miserables” at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
First you refurbish the show’s look, with new setpieces and backdrops inspired by the fascinating, proto-surrealist artwork of Victor Hugo, the celebrated author of the novel that “Les Miz” is based on.
You also refresh Claude-Michel Schoenberg’s orchestral score, by (thank you!) overriding a synthesizer-heavy arrangement with a crisper, more rhapsodic, symphonic one.
What else? You don’t mess too much with what works, in an international hit that’s played to 60 million people and been recorded more than 35 times. (My companion at the performance owns 22 of those recordings.)
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I’ve always found “Les Miz” to be a few cuts above the other mega-pop-operetta imports from London that colonized Broadway in the 1980s.
It boasts a memorable score with some breakout tunes (“Bring Him Home,” “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own”), and embraces (at times with shameless sentimentality) the sweeping romanticism and meaty plotting of Hugo’s 19th-century opus.
Against projected backdrops drawn mainly from Hugo’s own brooding pen-and-ink landscapes of heavily clouded and starry skies, country scenes and darkened city streets, the redemptive story of former petty criminal Jean Valjean (played with conviction and tenderness by the excellent tenor J. Mark McVey) unfolds apace.
Trevor Nunn and John Caird co-adapted and staged the Royal Shakespeare Company’s original “Les Miz.” For this edition, directors Laurence Connor and James Powell built on and judiciously elaborated their cinematic storytelling style.
Though there are towering new tenement sets (by Matt Kinley), they are whisked away seamlessly as Valjean eludes his longtime hunter and nemesis, Javert (Andrew Varela, like McVey a “Les Miz” veteran), assumes a new identity, comforts a dying prostitute (Fantine, played by Betsy Morgan), adopts her infant daughter, Cosette, then finally lands where most of the show’s plot resides.
That would be 1830s Paris, where rebellion foments among the downtrodden masses and idealistic students. And, in the most blood-plumping dramatic sequence, it’s where their efforts result in a doomed uprising on barricaded streets.
All of this plays out with fire and fervor, enhanced by Chris Jahnke’s new orchestrations; Andreane Neofitou’s more period-correct costumes; and a cast that meets the show’s exacting standards and vocal demands.
Standouts here beside the superlative McVey are the aptly fragile and sweet-voiced Morgan, boyishly appealing Justin Scott Brown as the student Marius, and the sterling-voiced Jeremy Hays, who is just terrific as the emblematic firebrand Enjolras.
My one quibble is with Chasten Harmon’s street waif Eponine. Her harder-sell pop voice tends to overpower.
Not that subtlety is a feature of “Les Miz.” It goes for broke with gauzy death scenes, outsize romantic ballads, leering villainy vs. angelic goodness, and the like.
But these are conventions of Hugo’s romantic period, as well as 1980s Broadway. To fully appreciate “Les Miz” you just have to go with the flow — which is more inviting than ever in this scrupulously renewed version of the musical.
Misha Berson: email@example.com