'Les Miserables' is as breathtaking as ever

April 10, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

When "Les Miserables" came to the Mechanic Theatre two years ago, it looked and sounded better than any show ever had there. Now it's back, and although a few of the performances don't shine as brightly, the overall effect is as splendid as ever.

No matter how often you see "Les Mis" -- and some fans have reportedly become addicted to it -- it's still breathtaking to behold the manner in which Victor Hugo's classic 19th century novel has been transformed into a modern musical classic.

Credit for this belongs not only to French songwriters Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg and co-directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn, but also to set designer John Napier, who employs a giant turntable to propel one of the most relentless and resonant chase scenes in literary history -- a chase in which the mightiness of the law pursues the righteousness of the just.

The law is represented by Javert, a police inspector who believes in absolute good and absolute evil -- with no gray area for redemption. With his booming voice and ramrod bearing and attitude, Chuck Wagner delivers the production's finest performance as this fiercely unbending enforcer. Standing on a nearly bare stage singing a solo, Wagner fills the theater with as much passion as the crowded, inflamed battle scenes.

Regrettably, Dave Clemmons is less compelling in the lead role of Javert's quarry -- fugitive Jean Valjean. He does a respectable job with the difficult ballad, "Bring Him Home," but his overall vocal quality is fairly ordinary, and he talks his way through many of the show's introductory lyrics, which are customarily sung.

Although the musical's creators focused on the conflict between Valjean and Javert, they retained enough subplots and secondary characters to give a sense of the novel's epic scope. Among the supporting players, child actor Joey Morano is particularly impressive as the urchin Gavroche, as is Donna Kane as the doomed, consumptive mother of Valjean's ward, Cosette. However, Ron Sharpe is rather callow as Cosette's suitor, and Candese Marchese is simply too shrill as his unrequited love.

Still, spectacle is at least as important as individual performances in this musical, and the spectacle department definitely delivers. And it's not all special effects, either. The show's nearly seamless artistry is best revealed in some of the simpler moments; at the end of the first act, when the song "One Day More" evolves from a solo to a duet to a trio to a call to arms, it still has the power to rouse you.

Literary legend has it that when "Les Miserables" was first published, Victor Hugo sent his publisher a telegram that read simply: "?". The answer he got back was: "!". The same could be said for this musical.

'Les Miserables'

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through May 3.

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

Tickets: $43.50-$48.50.

Call: (410) 625-1400.

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