“Les Miserables” – ASU Gammage

This review aired on KBAQ June 9, 2011


Broadway Across America – Arizona, ASU Gammage
Tempe, AZ

Yes, the 25th anniversary production of “Les Miserables,” playing this week at ASU Gammage, divorces itself from the original staging and design. Gone is the swirling turntable that kept the story moving cinematically as it told the vibrant story of Jean Valjean and his struggle to win respectability after stealing to feed a starving relative.

Now complicated scenic pieces move smoothly and swiftly to create the various locales that tell the story of the peoples French Revolution and Valjean’s transition to an honorable and dignified citizen leader. Throughout “Les Miserables,” Valjean tangles with the evil police chief Javert who vows to make Valjean pay for his crime.

The new Laurence Connor and James Powell staging focuses less on massive spectacle and more on the fascinating and emotionally involving story. Valjean takes over Cosette’s guardianship for his dying worker and the girl’s mother, Fantine. He raises the girl, she falls for Marius while the turmoil of the peoples struggles continue. The new concept still treats the story stunningly and the staging has bits of the original as the directors move the cast through the plot. The new sets are inspired by Victor Hugo’s paintings but without the turntable the action plods here and there and you will be conscious of the show’s lengthy three hour running time.

The rich Claude-Michel Schonberg score is still emotionally gripping as it sensitively reveals great depth about the significant characters. It’s a musical of great range, depth, and thought provoking sincerity.

The cast, with one notable exception, is exemplary. J. Mark McVey is a commanding Valjean and musically his soaring voice sails through the demanding score with effortless ease. His “Bring Him Home” is one of the finest I’ve heard as he pulls every emotional nuance from the song and his masterful ending note brought huge applause opening night. The weak cast link is Andrew Varela’s ineffective Javert. He pales in this critical role as he blends in and gets lost. He never becomes the opinionated man trying to stifle Valjean.

Betsy Morgan’s touching Fantine, Justin Scott Brown’s poignant Marius, Jenny Latimer’s moving Cosette, and Chasten Harmon’s idealistic Eponine are all richly satisfying. The children are strong, the other supporting players add, and the ensemble turn small parts significant even though some opening night sound problems, now rectified, made critical song lyrics disappear.

The new “Les Miserables” is a fresh look at the stalwart show that is as effective as the masterful original staging. Unfortunately, few tickets remain for the show that plays through Sunday, June 12 and potential theatergoers are advised to check with the ASU Gammage box office for cancellations at 1-800-982-2787.

Grade: A