Lawrence Clayton as Jean Valjean (left) and Andrew Varela as… (Deen van Meer, Handout photo )
With protesters from Wisconsin to Libya raising heated voices and issues, it seems like a particularly apt time for the hit musical "Les Miserables" to be back on the scene.
The revolutionary fervor that sparks so much of the plot seems more powerful — and certainly louder — than ever in the new and handsome 25th-anniversary production of the show at the Hippodrome Theatre through Sunday.
Based on the Victor Hugo novel, this ambitious pop opera by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil has maintained a remarkable grip on the public. "Les Miserables" is still playing in London, where it premiered in 1985, making it officially the longest-running musical ever.
It easily conquered Broadway in 1987, becoming the third-longest-running show there, and this Cameron Mackintosh venture has been produced in more than three dozen countries in more than 20 languages.
Given all that, there's no use complaining now that "Les Miserables" really doesn't have all that much going on beneath the action-packed surface. (Yes, I know, I'll have to build my own barricade to ward off the musical's passionate fans.)
A lot of the Schoenberg's score relies on predictable harmonic progressions, often harnessed to a descending bass line; the anthems for the revolutionary scenes suggest theme songs from second-rate 1950s war movies. The lyrics by Howard Kretzmer rarely get beyond the utilitarian.
A calculated quality tends to surface even beneath the stronger melodic hooks. And the recitative passages frequently sound as clunky as they do in mediocre mid-19th-century Italian operas.
Then there's the plot, boiled down so tightly and reworked so compactly that a crucial element gets nearly swallowed up. The tension between Valjean, the man who thought he had paid for his petty crime, and Javert, the police inspector obsessively pursuing him, should have far more impact than it makes here.
OK, I realize this is just so much water under the bridge that Javert leaps to his death from — a scene handled with particular flair in this production, by the way. It's much easier to go with the visual flow here, to take "Les Miserables" for what it is, a sincere, sprawling, more or less entertaining version of a classic story.
Matt Kinley's set design, based on drawings by Hugo and enhanced with state-of-the-art projections, enlivens each scene, from the barricades to the sewers, with arresting detail — and speed. The well-oiled production, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, moves at a cinematic pace that can't quite disguise the nearly three-hour running time, but comes close enough.
The only thing that doesn't make sense is the thunderous volume of the amplification, which, at least on opening night, ended up obscuring more than it clarified.
One of the most remarkable aspects about the anniversary staging is its colorblind casting, which underlines how universal the overriding themes in "Les Miserables" are — dignity, respect, justice, self-sacrifice and shared sacrifice, the prospect of redemption.
If Lawrence Clayton does not quite dominate the stage as Valjean, he creates a sympathetic, dynamic portrayal. He's also a sensitive vocal stylist who knows how to extract poetic gold out of songs even when the words turn banal (some tonal roughness Tuesday night suggested a cold). Andrew Varela is a commanding Javert with his richly resonant voice and well-defined characterization.
Betsy Morgan gives an endearing performance as Fantine and delivers the show-stopper "I Dreamed a Dream" in stirring fashion. Chasten Harmon, as Éponine, uses her richly layered voice to keen effect, shaping another of the show's best numbers, "On My Own," with affecting, unforced phrasing.
Michael Kostroff is quite the show-stealer as the revolting Thenardier, singing up a storm in "Master of the House." Shawna M. Hamic makes a great sidekick in ickiness for him as Madame Thenardier.
Justin Scott Brown exudes youthful abandon and shapes his music expressively as Marius. Jenny Latimer has the exuberance and charm for Cosette, if not the musical finesse (intonation was a recurring problem on Tuesday). The rest of the ensemble, notably Jeremy Hays as Enjolras, comes through with potent acting and vocalism.
And in the pit, a hardworking ensemble led by Robert Billig makes a persuasive case for Chris Jahnke's colorful orchestrations newly created for this milestone production of a milestone musical.
If you go
"Les Miserables" runs through Sunday the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Very limited ticket availability. Call 410-547-7328 or go to broadwayacrossamerica.com.