Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Theater Review: Les Miserables -- The Bushnell

Mark McVey as Jean Valjean. Photo by Paul Kolnik
Energized Tour Brings it Home
By Lauren Yarger
The adage “practice makes perfect” finds its proof in the portrayal of Jean Valjean in the tour of Les Miserables stopping this week at the Bushnell in Hartford. J. Mark McVey has played the title role more than 2,900 times and you won’t find a better performance or a more moving rendition of “Bring Him Home.”

This energized 25th anniversary tour recreates the excitement of the original Broadway production with stunning new video projections (Fifty-Nine Productions)  and in every way, brings the musical home. (Can it really been that long since this stage version of Victor Hugo’s classic with music by Claude-Michel Schoberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer took Broadway by storm?) For those of you who are fans (and this review assumes most of you are and doesn’t attempt to recount the story), don’t miss McVey. For those who never have seen Les Mis, this is the production to see. 

Other members of the cast also stand out (including McVey’s real life daughter Kylie who alternates the roles of young Cosette (the night I attended) and young Eponine with Julianna Simone). Shawna M. Hamic is one of the funniest -- and scariest -- Madame Thenardiers I have ever seen (and yes, I’m a big Les Mis fan, so I have seen a lot of them.) Kudos for taking a much-played role and making it her own. She’s paired with talented Richard Vida as the other half of the morally corrupt couple who provide an unhappy home for little Cosette and interact with Valjean over the years in post Revolution France. 

Relentlessly pursuing former convict Valjean is religious zealot Javert (Andrew Varella) who brings a lovely baritone to his songs, nailing “The Stars.” In turning his life around, Valjean helps down-and-out factory worker/prostitute Fantine (Betsy Morgan), who belts out a lovely “I Dreamed a Dream." He raises her daughter, Cosette (Julie Benko) as his own. Cosette falls in love with activist student Marius (Max Quinlan, who also has a terrific voice), but the couple’s happiness means a broken heart for the Thenardiers’ daughter, Eponine (Chasten Harmon) who is in love with Marius. 

The saga of love, war, forgiveness and redemption, directed in this new Cameron Macintosh production by Laurence Connor and James Powell, bursts to life on a wonderful set (Matt Kinley, design) enhanced by images inspired by Hugo’s own paintings. The video projections create a three-dimensional world, particularly of the sewers, and give a new option for depicting Javert’s plunge into their depths (on Broadway, this effect never could be seen unless you were seated in the mezz). 
Also standing out is Jeremy Hays, who as student Enjolras, leads his compatriots to battle with a strong, splendid tenor that sounds a lot like the original recording. 
I noted only a few criticisms. Some of the movement, particularly physical confrontation scenes, appear staged. This production has a small orchestra and it sounds small against the large ensemble. The tempo is  a bit too fast at times as well (perhaps part of a plan to shorten the show's original running time of more than three hours to the current two and a half hours). Robert Billing conducts. 
And since another drop won't hurt me now, I also miss the revolving stage. It really was a part of the look and feel of this show. This can’t really be lodged as a complaint, however, since it would be impossible for a touring production to require this, but parts of the show look like they are missing this part.

All of these are minor complaints, however. They pale in comparison to the engaging production, particularly McVey’s compelling performance. It’s a wonderful revisit to a favorite and in many ways, is more satisfying (and goose-bump generating) than some performances I saw during the show’s Broadway run between 1987 and 2003. Don’t miss it.
Les Mis plays at the Bushnell through Sunday. The run is close to being sold out. For ticket information, call the box office at 860-987-5900 or visit www.bushnell.org.
For information on the tour, visit http://www.lesmis.com/about/25th-anniversary-year/.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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