A good return for your money Review: 'Les Miserables,' in town again, has some standout performances, a new scene and brighter lighting.

October 17, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Paying its fourth visit to the Mechanic Theatre in seven years, "Les Miserables" continues to attract near sellout crowds, allowing it to command the Mechanic's top ticket price ever. And, thanks to the theatrical ingenuity with which it transforms Victor Hugo's epic 19th-century novel into a musical with nonstop singing and action, the show continues to give theatergoers value for the dollar.

Repeat audiences will find a couple of differences in this production, which was touched up this year, when the musical celebrated its 10th year on Broadway. The Broadway production also made headlines shortly before that when producer Cameron Mackintosh and co-directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird replaced the New York cast, which they felt suffered from "long-run-itis." Before the replacements were installed, however, the national touring company filled in on Broadway.

So essentially, this is the rare road show that's actually been on Broadway. First-time audiences will be struck by set designer John Napier's stagecraft, which keeps the events of Hugo's 1,200-page tome whirling along on a central turntable. They'll also be impressed by the way composer Claude-Michel Schonberg's anthem-like score suits the mammoth theme of the conflict between the law (represented by the character of Inspector Javert) and justice (represented by Javert's quarry, ex-convict Jean Valjean).

"Les Miz" regulars will recognize two changes. First, a short, lovely scene has been added showing Valjean meeting his future ward, Cosette, in the woods where she has been sent to fetch water by dead of night for the cruel innkeepers paid to care for her.

The second change is more problematic. In the past, "Les Miz" was so dimly lighted, much of it took place in near-darkness. Now, however, lighting designer David Hersey has literally cast more light on the matter. The results are mixed.

On the positive side, the bright illumination of the corpse of student rebel leader Enjolras, suspended upside-down from the barricades, now takes on the ghastly beauty of a painting by the great French artist Jacques-Louis David. On the negative side, brightening things up lessens the majesty of these same barricades, making them seem far less imposing than the structures whose appearance often elicited applause in the past.

In terms of performances, there are several standouts, beginning with Todd Alan Johnson's Javert. A commanding figure, Johnson not only has an impassioned singing voice, but he succeeds in creating empathy for a character who could easily come across as a stock villain.

In the comic relief role of the innkeeper, Thenardier, J. P. Dougherty, who also played this part here three years ago, delivers an exuberantly bawdy, tasteless performance, and as his amply endowed, soot-encrusted wife, Tregoney Shepherd would do John Waters proud. Their irreverent final number, "Beggars at the Feast," is a marvelous mixture of mockery and glee.

Other admirable performances include those of Kate Fisher as the adult Cosette; Lisa Capps as her much-wronged mother, Fantine; Rich Affannato as Cosette's beloved Marius; Matthew Shepard as Enjolras; and Rona Figueroa as the Thenardiers' grown daughter, Eponine.

In the central role of Valjean, however, Gregory Calvin Stone is adequate, but hardly an equal adversary to Johnson's towering Javert. Stone's falsetto lacks some of the assuredness that Schonberg's music requires, and his ironic facial expressions at times belie the severity of the character's situation.

"Les Miz," which was created by Schonberg and Alain Boublil and has lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, is on a perpetual turntable of its own. It has been seen by more than 40 million people, grossing upward of $1.6 billion worldwide. The national tour has visited one city -- St. Paul -- six times. So if you can't get tickets this week or next, don't fret; it'll probably come around again.

'Les Miserables'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday and Oct. 21-25, 7: 30 p.m. Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Oct. 26

Tickets: $30-$62.50

Call: 410-752-1200

Pub Date: 10/17/97

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