Les Misérables

By Megan McDonald February 1, 2012

No matter how successful any theatrical piece has been—and Les Misérables has certainly been über-successful by any definition—there always exists the opportunity to revisit and refresh what has become a classic production. Producer Cameron Mackintosh seized that opportunity a few years ago to create a 25th anniversary production of Les Miz, which is now onstage in a touring show at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.

Longtime fans of the original need not fear that the characters, the story, the songs or the passion of the show have been altered. Mostly, this production differs in its design and staging, especially of several crucial scenes, and in its orchestrations. The latter may not seem that different to most laymen’s ears; the designs (by Matt Kinley, based on the paintings of Victor Hugo himself—who knew this protean writer also painted?) fit seamlessly into the background. It’s the staging changes that most audience members may notice, but not in any negative way. More about that in a minute.

Of course Les Misérables still opens with a prologue establishing the identity of one of the most famous prisoners of all time, Jean Valjean (J. Mark McVey), sent down for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family. Released on parole with an admonishment by his steely nemesis, Inspector Javert (Andrew Varela), Valjean immediately finds out that the world does not welcome a convict, even a hard-working one, and when given the chance to steal silver from a kindly bishop, he does so. But the bishop’s forgiveness of his act, and his urging for Valjean to seek a new, better life, change the embittered man into one with a faith in God and human kindness.

Of course, that faith is severely tested throughout this epic tale, as he encounters the doomed Fantine (Betsy Morgan), who’s turned to prostitution to support her child, Cosette; finds himself time and time again face to face with a relentless Javert; and eventually becomes connected to a band of students and street people trying to the fight the Paris revolution of 1832. As you might expect from any production with the name Cameron Mackintosh attached to it, the cast is of the first order, including Jeremy Hays, properly charismatic as the student leader Enjolras; Richard Vida and Shawna M. Hamic as the larcenous Thenardiers; and Chasten Harmon as the lovelorn Eponine, whose feelings for Cosette’s beloved, Marius (Max Quinlan), lead her to her tragic destiny.

So, back to the staging . This production utilizes video projections by Fifty-Nine Productions, and they are dramatic and impressive indeed. Chances are you won’t miss the well-known turntable in the Act I closer, as the cast gathers the night before revolution; the way the scene’s backdrop seemingly moves backward and the ensemble forward is just as effective. And you may find the climactic sewer scene and Javert’s suicide by the Seine (you’ll really feel his descent into the void) even more compelling than you remembered.

In any case, you certainly shouldn’t be disappointed by this retooling of a beloved classic; the opening night audience acclaimed Les Miz with its usual prolonged standing ovation. The production continues through Feb. 12; for tickets call (813) 229-7827.

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