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Theater Review: “Les Misérables” at the Kennedy Center

Cameron Mackintosh’s 25th anniversary revival amps up the energy in a staging that both overacts and underperforms.

the Kennedy Center’s 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables runs through October 30. Photograph by Deen van Meer

☆☆☆ stars out of four

Chances are, you’ve seen Les Misérables already, because 99.9 percent of casual and devoted theatergoers alike seem to have feasted multiple times on tales of the super-strong Valjean, the ill-fated Fantine, and the brave but misguided student protesters at one point or another. There’s something unique and inexplicable about this particular musical that’s helped it engage audiences for decades, almost beyond any other show, despite its close-to-three-hour running time, its deeply complex plot, and (let’s face it) its basis in French literature.

So what is that certain je ne sais quoi? It’s hard to tell in the Kennedy Center’s 25th anniversary production of Les Mis, which will undoubtedly play to packed-out audiences for the rest of its October run despite more than a few awkward performances and a plot so speedy you’ll almost certainly need to read the helpful playbill synopsis before the show starts. Based on the classic tome by Victor Hugo and with many of his original drawings incorporated into an extraordinarily effective set, Les Mis manages to both overact and underperform at the same time. With no words to speak of, it’s basically opera, only with compositions by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil that’ll have you thinking more of Susan Boyle than Salome.

The show’s hero, Jean Valjean (played by the outstanding J. Mark McVey), is the anchor of both the plot and, in this case, the entire musical. McVey provides an element of grace, nobility, fortitude, and, naturally, super-human strength to a play that would otherwise be a moral vacuum of prostitutes, a viciously unfair penal system, and what may be the most unsympathetic couple ever to appear onstage: the innkeeper (Joseph Spieldenner) and his grotesque wife (Natalie Beck). Valjean is released from prison after 19 years for stealing food to keep his starving sister alive, only to find that as a parolee, he’s unwelcome most everywhere. A moment of kindness offered him by a bishop (James Zannelli), however, sets him on the right path, despite the fact that he’s eternally stalked by a policeman, Javert (the impressive Andrew Varela), every time he manages to get settled.

Valjean encounters a dying young woman, Fantine (Betsy Morgan), who begs him to take care of the daughter she placed with the aforementioned innkeeper. Valjean rescues said daughter, Cosette, from a life of cruelty, but, alas, their happiness together can only last so long. If you’re wondering if the play has an happy ending, the title might offer a clue or two— Les Misérables almost definitely wins the dubious prize of having the most characters killed off in a single act. Although, for a tragedy, it also has an astounding number of visual penis jokes in the first half.

As an extravaganza of musical theater, however, you won’t find anything bigger than this production of Les Mis on the Washington stage this year. There’s nothing restrained about it: Cameron Mackintosh’s production has vast, magical, rotating sets that transform scenes into barricades, stately homes, and slums; a fantastic cast of male actors (the main female parts, oddly enough, seem to have been given to the girls who could sing the loudest—pitch and tone be damned); and epic songs. Mackintosh has managed to keep the energy fresh despite insurmountable odds—one only wishes he could have expended some of it to tone down the hyperactive hamminess.

Les Misérables is at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through October 30; for tickets ($39 to $155) visit the Kennedy Center’s Web site.