Theater Review: “Les Misérables” at National Theatre

The tenth production of the musical to hit Washington has energy in spades.

By: Jane Horwitz

From the second the 14-member orchestra strikes up its first heavily amplified chord and launches into the prologue of Les Misérables—“launches” being the operative word here—an audience member at the National Theatre might be forgiven for wishing for a seatbelt. For this beautifully sung touring production, though it clocks it at nearly three hours, hurtles through songs and story with such velocity, it leaves an audience breathless and a cast with little time to weave much nuance into the performance.

Even the behemoth set pieces move briskly in this reimagined staging, which debuted in 2010 to mark the 25th anniversary of the show’s London premiere. A touring version of it played the Kennedy Center as recently as last fall. Yet excessive speed aside, the tenth touring production of Les Miz to hit Washington can still bring a tear to the eye and a lump to the throat, though perhaps not as frequently as one might wish.

The students’ ill-fated uprising in 1832 Paris still triggers an adrenaline rush when their leader Enjolras (Jason Forbach) exhorts them to action in “The People’s Song (Do You Hear the People Sing)” and when the red flag waves. And that slimy innkeeper Thénardier and his wife (Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic) still elicit grins when they mug more than should be legal through the comical and catchy “Master of the House,” their signature hymn to thievery and survival.

Yet in a musical that’s really more of an opera, it helps if the leads and the supporting players seem larger than life in demeanor as well as voice. In this production, that’s a bit of an issue. Both Peter Lockyer as the saintly ex-convict Jean Valjean and Andrew Varela as his nemesis, Javert, the policeman obsessively on his trail for breaking parole, sing like angels. Their acting, on the other hand, in the show’s rare spoken dialogue and much of the recitative (sung dialogue) is stolid at best, tree-stump-like at worst. Lockyer can still make you catch your breath with his honeyed falsetto in Valjean’s prayer, “Bring Him Home,” asking God to spare young Marius (Devin Ilaw), the student rebel who is the beloved of Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette (Lauren Wiley). Varela has the vocal chops and a larger physical presence than Lockyer, but not the grandiosity the character needs.

As Fantine, the factory girl driven to prostitution to pay the vile Thénardiers to care for her child, Cosette (played by Abbey Rose Gould on press night), Genevieve Leclerc belts “I Dreamed a Dream” with power but little passion or regret. Briana Carson-Goodman, on the other hand, infuses a lot of both into “On My Own,” the act two torch song sung by Eponine, the Thénardiers’ streetwise daughter, in love with Marius. Rather pallid in act one in the underwritten role, Ilaw catches fire in act two, with a powerful rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” Marius’s sad salute to all the friends who died in their doomed uprising.

Victor Hugo’s tale of early-19th-century France roils with big emotions, Christian themes, and social unrest. In a show that rarely resorts to quiet, the creators and performers make sure you hear one theme: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” This latest Les Misérables to hit Washington isn’t perfect, but it does what needs to be done.

So curse you, producer Cameron Mackintosh, composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyricist Herbert Kretzmer, original French scriptwriters Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, original directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird, and new directors Laurence Connor and James Powell! Curse you and the cast at the National for making a longtime reviewer blink back tears while trying to remain skeptical of the Les Miz phenomenon and cottage industry. Curse you for making a reviewer tear up at a show that barrels across the stage as if everyone in it had a train to catch.

Should you spend your dollars to see it, even though the much anticipated all-star film version opens on Christmas day? Well, yes, if you love theater and are curious to see this reimagined staging, with scenery patterned after paintings by Victor Hugo and a cinema-size screen at the back on which evocative projections place the characters in the Paris sewers, the French countryside, or just in a field gazing at the stars.

(Pssst! I’ve seen the movie—totally worth it, but Hugh Jackman, though we love him, can’t quite do justice to “Bring Him Home.” He’s a better actor, but he hasn’t the falsetto or the high notes that Lockyer does.)

Les Misérables is at the National Theatre through December 30. Running time is about two hours and 55 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($55 to $128) are available via the National Theatre’s website.