Far in advance of Universal’s anticipated pic adaptation of megatuner “Les Miserables,” cinematic techniques have already been applied to its 25th anniversary revival, in for a triumphant month at the Ahmanson. Rear projections are set in motion to track Jean Valjean’s journey from sin to salvation, while Paule Constable’s lighting choices bring Victor Hugo’s extensive cast of characters into stark closeup. Longtime fans will find much novelty to appreciate, as first-timers fall just as readily under the spell.
Playing the narrative against Hugo’s own paintings and woodcut prints gently pulls us into the period, while Matt Kinley’s gliding set pieces offer a strong sense of place to the Thenardiers’ ramshackle inn and the rebels’ cellar HQ. Though we don’t see the barricades being formed as we did in 1987, a greater emotional connection with the story enhances the battles fought atop them.
If helmers Laurence Connor and James Powell wield a sometimes heavy hand (must everyone slam props and furniture when angry?), their insistence on character development before everything else yields innumerable dividends. Every cat and mouse stratagem between the stalking Javert (Andrew Varela) and the restless Valjean (J. Mark McVey) becomes crystal clear, creating unprecedented empathy for each.
Justin Scott Brown’s Marius and Jenny Latimer’s Cosette achieve weight and size rarely seen in the ingenue roles, and the Thenardiers (Michael Kostroff and Shawna M. Hamic) for once prove genuinely menacing while earning their laughs.
The Boublil-Schonberg-Kretzmer score is remarkably well served by muscular new orchestrations and choral work consistently sending a chill up the spine. (Not only “Do You Hear the People Sing,” you can actually make out what they’re saying.)
Only Betsy Morgan’s Fantine and Chasten Harmon’s Eponine succumb to overselling their power ballads a la “American Idol,” but Harmon manages to nail the essential vulnerability of “On My Own” to audience cheers.
If we’d first seen this literalized staging, lacking John Napier’s turntable and David Hersey’s painting with light, would the tuner have achieved its legendary eminence? Maybe not. But the new lease on life infused by producer Cameron Mackintosh’s second team should fuel the legend well into the next quarter century.