There’s a reason Les Misérables is the longest running musical in the world. Not only does it have all the elements of a timeless classic—a heart-wrenching yet heart-warming story, despair and redemption, conflict and resolution, hatred and love—but it also offers a score so beautiful and powerful it evokes goosebumps and tears, even without the lyrics. Now in its 25th year, the musical against which all other musicals are judged has done the impossible and gotten even better.
James Powell and Matt Finley, co-director and scenic designer of the 25th-anniversary tour of Les Misérables, took a risk when deciding they would tweak the musical that has sold more than 60 million tickets in 42 countries since it opened in 1985. Luckily for them, it paid off—big time. Right from the start audience members familiar with the old “Les Miz” will see a change. Instead of the original opening—three chain-gain convicts breaking rocks—the stage becomes a ship, full of miserable criminals rowing, slowly and painfully, in time with the prologue. The song is the same, the disparity is the same, and yet this seemingly small change sets the tone for the rest of the slightly tweaked show.
The biggest upgrade to Les Miz comes in the form of a backdrop. In one scene it’s a street upon which the rebels march. Then it’s the rat-filled sewers Valjean must carry Marius through to get to safety. Most powerfully, it’s the stormy waters of the river that become evil Javert’s final resting place. This video screen is an integral character in this new Les Miz. And although it could be a distraction—a cheesy attempt at marrying modern-day technology with a more than 200-year-old tale—it isn’t. Instead, it gives the story an extra touch of magic, sparking peoples’ imaginations and holding their attention.
All the tweaks and upgrades would be nothing without a phenomenal cast and orchestra, both of which are more than accounted for in this tour. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music soars throughout the Orpheum thanks to conductor Robert Billig and his orchestra, and Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics are more powerful than ever when sung by such incredible voices as J. Mark McVey (Jean Valjean), Andrew Varela (Javert), Chasten Harmon (Eponine), and Jenny Latimer (Cosette). This is most true in “Bring Him Home,” a prayer of protection sung by Valjean over Marius while he sleeps after the rebels’ first battle. McVey not only has unbelievable range, but he applies such passion and tenderness to each note that it’s a test of endurance not to cry.
Even though die-hard fans of the traditional Les Misérables may have a hard time stomaching this updated version, even they will be hard-pressed to altogether disagree that this version is exceedingly beautiful and powerful. After all, at the end of the day it’s still a story in which love conquers hate and beauty triumphs over evil—and that can never be a bad thing.
Playing through December 18
Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.
Tickets from $42