“Les Miserables” has been around so long now — it’s well into its second decade — and has been imitated so much, that the show should really be showing its age. Its technical innovations should be obsolete, and its performers should behave like automatons obediently going through the motions that have been gone through thousands of times before. With the banners in front of the Music Center proclaiming, annoyingly, “She’s Back!,” “Les Miz” should be able to evoke little more than a touch of nostalgia, with the inevitable standing ovation at the end seeming as dutifully rehearsed as the curtain call. So why, oh why, is none of this true?
Sure, one needs to begin by crediting Victor Hugo. After all, this story was a masterpiece long before Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Cameron Mackintosh re-fashioned it. It’s the story of Jean Valjean, played in this newest reincarnation by the powerful Ivan Rutherford, who, after two decades in prison, finds his entire life turned around by an act of goodness.
From that moment on, Valjean is a walking saint, a character so good that by all rights he should be dull. But his inner demons rescue him from being boring. Valjean can never feel satisfied, never feel he’s done enough. Scolded by a woman whose misfortunes he couldn’t see, Valjean devotes the remainder of his life to raising the woman’s orphaned child as his own, all the while escaping the ever-pursuing Inspector Javert, who has made it his life’s mission to find Valjean and send him back to prison.
So, yes, the story’s good. And the sweeping nature of the tale is captured by a form that, 15 years ago, was unknown to Broadway, the completely sung musical that’s not an opera. (Despite their differences, there’s a very direct line between “Les Miz” and “Rent.”) And here in L.A., this non-stop, melodic score is performed beautifully by an ensemble cast, with especially standout performances by Rutherford and by Sutton Foster, who, as Eponine, sings the painfully sad “On My Own” with passion and a contemporary flair.
And, finally, this ensemble musical, where one character after another dominates the story briefly before giving way to the next, moves with absolute fluidity under the original direction of John Caird and Trevor Nunn.
The revolving stage that set designer John Napier created provides not only a means of swift and smooth transitions when the story leaps forward in time, but also a visual metaphor for Valjean’s life spent on the run, always circling back to face his nemesis Javert.
If some of the staging isn’t quite as sharp as it used to be — Javert’s death scene, for example, doesn’t come off properly — the emotion of the piece is fully realized. And it’s this emotion — this sincerely heartfelt sentiment — that makes “Les Miz” what it is. No matter how epic the story may be, how technically sophisticated this ever-running production, it’s ultimately the clarity and simplicity of the individual moments that make it all come together.
And try as one might, it’s hard to resist the emotional pull of songs like “Do You Hear the People Sing” and “One Day More,” which give the audience a charge at the end of the first act, and “On My Own” and “Bring Him Home,” which keep the audience teary well into the second.
Maybe someday “Les Miz” will develop wrinkles and gray hair and lose its teeth. But it hasn’t happened yet.