'Les Miz,' in its third go-around here, has lost nothing to familiarity

July 01, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

"Les Miserables" has set up its revolutionary barricades, Paris tenements and sewers at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre for the third time, and once again this rousing musical version of Victor Hugo's classic novel has the stuff to bring an audience to its feet for a well-deserved ovation.

Except for the mostly impressive cast, the production hasn't changed much. That's good news since Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's almost entirely sung version of Hugo's 1,200-page epic has always been as slickly efficient as it is melodious and moving.

I mean "moving" in the physical as well as the emotional sense. As directed by John Caird and Trevor Nunn on John Napier's turntable set, the show whirls through three 19th century decades -- including the 1832 Paris uprising -- with breathtaking theatricality.

The turntable helps the years spin by in the prologue, which takes Jean Valjean -- imprisoned for 19 years after stealing a loaf of bread -- from his release in 1813 to his re-established identity as a factory owner and small-town mayor in 1823. And when the action moves to Paris in 1832, it's awesome to see the two large pieces of scenery that represent junk-filled tenements pivot and connect to form barricades.

As to the cast, Frederick C. Inkley's Valjean sings with stirring power and range, and equally important, he radiates goodness without a shred of self-righteousness. Inkley is a highly empathetic Valjean, struggling to lead a moral life in a frequently immoral society.

Two of the best examples of that immorality are the opportunistic Thenardiers, who start out as innkeepers and re-surface as thieving con artists at the time of the 1832 uprising. Whether the Thenardiers' comic antics have been expanded, or whether the broad approach of J.P. Dougherty and Kelly Ebsary merely make it seem that way, these actors stop the show without upsetting its rhythm. In addition, in the role of the Thenardiers' grown daughter Eponine -- a far more serious presence -- Gina Feliccia delivers one of the production's most affecting performances, both vocally and dramatically.

As to the crucial role of Valjean's relentless pursuer, police inspector Javert, David Masenheimer conveys the character's essential rigidity and sense of superiority, but he is one of the few principals whose singing obscures the lyrics.

There's another disappointment associated with Javert in this production. Spectacular as the show's special effects may be, one of the most stunning has always been the relatively simple effect Napier designed for Javert's last scene. Without giving it away, this once chillingly clever effect comes across here as more confusing than ingenious.

Even so, this is only one effect in three hours of engrossing musical theater. If you've never seen "Les Miz," this an excellent opportunity to make its acquaintance (especially since the Mechanic is one of the most intimate venues it plays). If you're a "Les Miz" veteran, this production will reassure you of the show's stature as one of Broadway's worthiest megahits.

"Les Miserables"

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (Audio-described performances 2 p.m. tomorrow and 8 p.m. July 5; sign-interpreted performances 8 p.m. July 6 and 2 p.m. July 9). Through July 23

Tickets: $39.50-$54.50

Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407

*** 1/2

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