Decatur native leads Les Miserables cast at the Fox through Sunday

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When I heard that, after 23 years, uber-producer Cameron Mackintosh had retooled his great Les Miserables (and was premiering the changes at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre), I was simultaneously excited and horrified. Of all the musicals of our generation, Les Mis is not only easily the greatest and most enduring, but also the most unlikely-- a three-hour-plus show of all original music, based on a French novel over a hundred years old and over fourteen hundred pages long, entitled (loosely translated) “The Wretched,” and which, when not concerning itself with the plight of the urban poor, dwells largely on the fundamental theological conflict between justice and mercy. Not exactly Oklahoma! material, that.

So despite my faith in Mackintosh, I was worried for my favorite show-- worried especially that the profundity and moral heft of the show (far exceeding that of any musical I’ve ever seen) would be compromised, “updated” into submission. And just from an aesthetic standpoint, I was awfully worried at the news that the famous turntable from the original production was gone as well-- no more dramatic spins of the barricade to see what’s happening on the other side. For goodness’ sake, would I even recognize this Les Mis?

I needn’t have worried. This production is easily the strongest of all the traveling Les Mis shows I’ve seen. The sets are sparser than in the original, but the addition of a projection screen upstage is a marvelous stroke, utilizing original paintings by Victor Hugo himself. Most of the business previously enabled by the turntable is handled by the more traditional theatrical practices of moving across the stage as the scene shifts, or by brief changes with lights down, or with another curtain separating an ongoing downstage scene from the upstage scene change. The delight in the audacity of the turntable technique is lost, but with one notable exception (the iconic view of Enjolras’ dead, flag-draped body revealed on the other side of the barricade as it spins), there are no major moments that are adversely affected. And the richer, more textured (and more abstract) scenery in the projections is a great addition.

And the show itself is marvelous as well. Rob Evan, the man most associated with the title roles of Jekyll and Hyde in the minds of most theatergoers, has of course long been an accomplished and beloved Jean Valjean as well. This show is a bit of a moment for him, as the Decatur native has recently moved his family back to Atlanta after 12 years in New York. You’ll be seeing a lot more of him. That’s a very good thing indeed, as his work here shows. His voice is a higher, gentler one than many of his fellow Valjeans, and the effect is a moving one in some of the softer moments in the show, and especially in the sweet moments with the young Cosette. Evan is also very obviously comfortable inhabiting the part, having performed it so many times, and his comfort shows-- you never get the feeling he’s putting Valjean on, but rather that he’s living him. Valjean is a formidable job for any actor, between the aging the actor has to pull off, the huge vocal range required, and the sheer emotional and spiritual weight of the part. With the exception of the great Colm Wilkinson, Evan is the best I’ve seen.

Another of the greatest strengths of this production could not have been more of a revelation to me. Les Miserables has always been a bit of a challenge for first-time viewers who haven’t read the book-- unless you’re going to do a Nicholas Nickleby-style multi-nighter, there’s only so much backstory the writers can cram into one show. You learn Les Mis slowly, and each time you see it, it grows in your mind and heart. One of the notable casualties of the time constraints is, I think, the Marius-Cosette love story, which has always seemed forced and thin to me in the musical. I can only assume it’s director Fred Hanson’s master stroke to cast in those two roles actors (Anderson Davis and Deborah Lew) who either are or seem, and certainly act, much younger than previous incarnations. The result is stunning. The scene where they declare their love, for example, which was previously the weakest scene of each production I had seen, becomes a charming, energized, inspired moment. Instead of two noble and pretty but largely bloodless characters inching their way toward each other, Hanson gives us, much like Zefirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, two youngsters baffled and smitten by the first rush of young love, and it’s as intoxicating to us as it is to them. Brilliant.

The rest of the cast is largely excellent as well. Robert Hunt, as Javert, fills the auditorium with each song he gets, although I wasn’t a fan of his movement (I’m partial to a more ramrod-straight Javert, inflexible in posture as he is in theology-- I was ruined forever by seeing Anthony Perkins in the movie when I was young). Edward Watts’ Enjolras is as beefy in body as in voice, and you never doubt how he could have convinced those around him to follow him to their graves-- his masculine presence is palpable and charismatic. Jenny Fellner as Eponine was my wife’s favorite, and indeed does a great job of making Fantine spunky enough to make you fall in love with her, but vulnerable enough to make you want to protect her. There were two performances that disappointed me, however. Laurent Giroux’s Thenardier was strangely muffled in a part that lends itself well to clamorous vigor (it’s possible he was just off that night; his comic timing was excellent despite the lack of energy). And Nikki Renee Daniels made a puzzling choice, turning Fantine from the noblehearted, quietly despairing woman whose choices show her strength of will and character, into a spunky, feisty firebrand kicking at the pricks of her fate. It was worth trying, but it didn’t work for me; I missed the softly tragic Fantine. Daniels certainly has the singing chops for the role, though, and I’m sure I’d enjoy her in another show (Kiss Me Kate comes to mind as a great fit).

Mackintosh is evaluating this new incarnation of the show and eyeing a possible Broadway re-launch. Here’s hoping that re-launch happens, and soon. In the meantime, if you can catch one of the shows this weekend (the run ends Sunday night), it’s not an experience you’ll soon forget. Highly recommended.

Related links:
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