One of theater’s greatest, grandest musicals of all time, Les Miserables can currently be seen in Philadelphia on both stage and screen. Even better: Both the film and live versions are excellent, especially the magnificent 25th-anniversary stage production playing to packed houses at the Academy of Music through Jan. 13. It is a heavenly time to be a Les Mis fan.
Film and theater are entirely different mediums, and comparing Les Mis’s current incarnations is difficult—and perhaps unfair. That said, with the possible exception of Hugh Jackman’s performance as hero Jean Valjean, in every case, the singing on stage at the Academy is far superior to the vocals featured in the Tom Hooper film. (Unlike other Broadway musicals at the Academy that have suffered sound problems, the acoustics for Les Mis are crisp, clear and sumptuous.) In fact, the Academy’s is the best-sung version of Les Miserables I have ever seen; that’s the chief reason why you should start clicking, scrolling, calling, tweeting or taking whatever action you must to obtain a ticket to experience this triumphant production from co-directors Laurence Connor and James Powell.
Peter Lockyer gives a yeoman’s performance as Valjean, doggedly pursued by determined constable Javert (played by the stunning Andrew Varela), who has sworn to return Valjean to prison, but the cast’s excellence is not the only reason that Connor and Powell’s Les Miserables is so successful. Most touring musicals typically do nothing more than faithfully remount the original production, a cookie-cutter approach that often results in a show that has all the imagination of a scared, unprepared understudy. The Academy’s version, however, is unlike any that has come before it, with new staging and—most importantly—brilliant scenic design from Matt Kinley, inspired by the paintings of Les Miserables author Victor Hugo. Kinley’s design allows us to be nearly as engaged visually as we are aurally.
Projected behind the actors, lush visuals are superbly integrated with the actors’ movements, as well as the adaptable structures in Kinley’s design—which, besides the legendary barricade, include an ingenious three-story structure that represents the various rundown buildings in Paris’ slums. Besides clarifying locations, providing atmosphere and giving the action an added sense of movement (including some nifty 3-D effects), the dark and, at times, effectively abstract images powerfully evoke the bleak surroundings of the urban poor. Giant smokestacks billowing blackened clouds that hang in the air add to the cramped, vile conditions in the ghettos of the industrial age, where factory employees literally work themselves to death, their lungs and souls polluted by soot and abhorrent working conditions.
It’s the sort of cesspool that we usually associate with Dickens’ London, and it gives Les Miserables a social commentary it previously lacked. Instead of only depressing us, however, the poverty also heightens our empathy for little Cosette (Lauren Wiley) as she sings about a magical “Castle on the Cloud” while slaving for her cruel foster parents. The desperation is even more keenly felt during Fantine’s (Genevieve Leclerc) anguished “I Dreamed a Dream” and when Eponine (Briana Carlson-Goodman) moves the audience to tears with “On My Own,” her song about unrequited love. As the relentless Javert, Varela is superb communicating a man whose moral certitude is destroyed when he witnesses the murder of a young boy at the hands of soldiers. In one of the production’s most stunning scenes, Varela delivers a commanding rendition of the thrilling “Stars” as he prays to a pitch black sky before one of the musical’s most potent scenes, which uses technology to produce a moment of theatrical bravado that, ironically, humanizes the obsessive inspector.
Regrettably, though, the Academy of Music does not employ a turntable stage—for years, the show’s signature piece of theatrical magic. It’s a problem that neither Les Mis producer Cameron Mackintosh nor his talented co-directors have satisfactorily solved, particularly when it comes to staging the death of a key character at the barricades. The solution utilized here is both contrived and confusing, and while the projections and new scenic design are visually compelling, the missing turntable stage and actions associated with it are nonetheless missed. Still, anthems like “Do You Hear the People Sing” and “One Day More” still provide as many thrills as they have for the last quarter-century.
In an act of true gluttony, go see the film and stage productions of Les Miserables back-to-back on the same day. Yes, it is six hours of your life you will never get back, but it’s also six hours that you’ll never forget.
Through Sun., Jan. 13. Tickets start at $25. Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets. 215.731.3333. kimmelcenter.org/broadway