Will it run? That’s not so foolish a question as it appears. In addition to the seemingly unstoppable London run – the world’s longest at 25 years and counting – Cameron Mackintosh has produced a new “Les Miserables” for a world tour. Nips and tucks aside, the material remains largely the same but direction, orchestrations and, chiefly, the design are new. Helmers Laurence Connor and James Powell clearly have no idea how to bring out detail in the performers, but designers Matt Kinley and Paule Constable’s commanding vision sweeps skepticism aside.
The biggest single shift is the exclusion of the original production’s equally beloved and parodied visual/dramatic trademark: the revolve. In its place is a succession of projections based on little-known but immensely evocative paintings by the work’s originator Victor Hugo.
Instead of the thuddingly literal projections that have bedeviled recent stage designs (most egregiously in “The Woman in White”), Kinley’s work is more suggestive. Instead of dully setting up precise locations, the projections of Hugo’s paintings splashed up against an angled back wall have a hazily impressionistic Turner-esque quality. And unlike most projected scenery that looks flat when lit, these imaginative images take light and color exceedingly well.
The result is richly atmospheric. The intense warmth of Constable’s painterly light turns the riotous scene after the prologue into something out of a Dutch old master painting and her fiercely directional light adds poetic loneliness to isolated characters.
The downside of the design comes whenever the video projections are made to move. The descent into the Paris sewers feels like watching a hand-drawn animation sequence from the back of the set. When Jean characters cunningly emerge out of the darkness as if out of the screen, the effect is more admirable than involving.
Shifts in light are also used to dramatize transitions between scenes thereby enhancing the show’s flow. That’s clearly been a key element in this reconsideration since several moments for applause have been excised in favor of forward momentum. The gain in fluidity does, however, come at a price. As a whole, the production could do with a little more time to breathe. Too often emotional peaks are stated but don’t fully resonate.
Mackintosh’s casting is, as expected, adroit. Earl Carpenter has a thundering voice that gives Javert true power and Gareth Gates brings sweet, well-sung sincerity to Marius.
John Owen-Jones has sung Valjean in London and on Broadway and still has commanding presence and spectacular vocal control. Yet even he suffers (momentarily) from the directors who encourage every cast member to Overemphasize Every Moment With A Telling Gesture. His spellbindingly well-sung “Bring Him Home” really doesn’t need the underlining of having him end the number by pointlessly clasping his hands to his heart.
Indeed, while “Les Mis” has never been strong on subtext, the tendency towards overstatement could usefully have been curbed, not least in Rosalind James’s Eponine who mistakes the title of “On My Own” for an instruction, turning the number into a self-indulgent power-ballad utterly removed from the show, an impressive audition for the wrong job.
Mackintosh’s new version smartly walks the line. There’s enough new vitality to justify the re-think without losing the sensibility of the original.