Number 24601

Les Miserables

Kennedy Center, Washington, DC

October 20, 2011

Can I start with a confession? Although I hadn’t seen it until last week, I’m really not sure Les Mis is really a great musical. When adapting an epic story to a sub-3-hour musical, a real premium is placed on economy of plot. The problem is compounded with a sung-through musical like this one; in something like Ragtime, which similarly attempts an era-defining story of epic sweep, you can at least get some plot out of the way through dialogue.

With Les Mis, I found myself wondering whether the resource of time could be allocated better. It’s a fun song, but do we really need six minutes of “Master of the House” to establish that the Thernardiers are horrible people? Nor does the song exactly create a deep character moment; I ended up thinking about Seinfeld during the song more than anything else. That said, the songwriting-as-songwriting is extraordinarily good; it’s not for nothing that “I Dreamed A Dream,” “Can You Hear the People Sing,” “One Day More,”* and–yes–“Master of the House” are considered classics of the genre.

*Although again, parody overtakes real life, as I found myself wandering to “La Resistance” as the first act drew to its conclusion.

So, more on the production after the jump, then?This was advertised as an “all-new” production, although I haven’t seen the original, which gives me little basis for comparison. But the overwhelming sense was that the show aspired to being cinematic, right down to the title card reading “LES MISERABLES” after the prologue. (Trying to get ahead of the Hugh Jackman/Anne Hathaway version next year, perhaps?) The big technical toy was an effects-heavy backdrop that, at various points, referenced: moving down a street, so the cast could march in place; moving through the sewers of Paris; and (do we need to spoiler alert classic works of Western literature?) the Seine rushing to meet Javert as he falls to his death.

These bits of tech wizardry generally come off as unnecessary, and didn’t add a lot for me. The language of theater is universal enough that we can understand what’s going on if a cast is marching in place en masse, I hope. And the final Javert scene comes off as really overplayed; personally, I think the whole thing would have been a lot more effective without 30 seconds of “falling.”

There are some real highlights in the cast: J. Mark McVey as Valjean, and Chasten Harmon as Eponine, both sang and acted big roles with impressive skill, and provided the show’s best moments. (“A Little Fall of Rain” does everything I accuse “Master of the House” of not doing.)

Don’t go to Les Mis expecting a perfect piece of musical theater, but this is on the whole a very well-done production, and is worth attending if you’re a fan of the show, or of songs in the musical theater genre more generally. Not the best thing I saw last week, but a perfectly pleasant way to spend an evening.

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