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'Les Miserables' brings spruced-up production to Straz Center for 25th anniversary tour

No more turntable.

That's the biggest change in Les Miserables, the blockbuster that has been reworked for its 25th anniversary U.S. tour, now playing at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

"We could have had a turntable if we wanted, but then I think it would have been very easy to get sucked back into the old show," set designer Matt Kinley says. "The challenge was to do it in a new way."

Back in the day, John Napier's original scenic design for the Alain Boublil-Claude-Michel Schonberg musical was a sensation, winning the 1987 Tony Award. The characters' constant walking on the mammoth turntable functioned as a kind of metaphor for Jean Valjean's odyssey through post-revolution France, and the assemblage of junk that made up the barricade was an overwhelming piece of pop sculpture.

To give the production a new look, Kinley turned for inspiration to the little-known paintings and drawings of Victor Hugo, author of the epic 1862 novel on which the musical is based. "We've used Hugo's paintings, which are quite impressionistic, as a moving backdrop, projected onto a brick wall at the back of the stage," the designer says. "They have a beautiful, somber quality to them. And they give the show an intellectual backbone, to have these paintings from the same hand that wrote the novel."

The newly spruced-up Les Mis, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, also sounds a bit different. Almost entirely sung, the score has the same songs, but some of the them have been tweaked here and there, mainly to cut the running time of the show from its original length of about three hours and 15 minutes to under three hours, which saves on overtime costs for the producers.

"You don't really miss anything," music director Robert Billig says. "Little People, which Gavroche sings, is truncated. The second verse of Fantine's Death and the second verse of Castle on a Cloud have been cut."

J. Mark McVey, who plays the hero Valjean, thinks that the cumulative effect of relatively small cuts like these — and many others have been made — improves the pacing of the musical.

"It makes the piece move along a lot more quickly and a lot more succinctly," McVey says. "It puts the focus on the storytelling. You still get those beautiful melodies. But with the verses cut here and there, everything has to be, in a dramatic sense, amped up, so the audience gets the idea clearly because you're missing some language."

The orchestration of the original Les Miserables had a bombastic, '80s pop sound, heavy on synthesizers. Now John Cameron's original orchestrations have been redone by committee: new orchestrations by Chris Jahnke with additional orchestrations by Stephen Metcalf and Stephen Brooker.

"Originally, the orchestration was 23 players on top of two keyboards, and the keyboards were central, with a pronounced synth sound," says Billig, who conducted the original Broadway production and is now conducting the tour. "The tour that opened in Tampa (at the Straz, then Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) in 1988, the third national tour, had 17 or 18 players. We have 14 on this version."

Les Mis travels with its own orchestra, rather than picking up musicians at each stop on the road, as many productions do. There are four strings, four brass, three woodwinds, two keyboards and percussion. Billig says he needs players totally familiar with the score, because the performance can go quite differently from night to night.

Bring Him Home especially is all over the place," the conductor says of Valjean's big ballad. "There are some dramatic or emotional moments where I let the singer lead me, and Bring Him Home is one those numbers. It's very satisfying when we are so connected and in synch and I know where he's breathing and I can feel where he's going. It's a very emotional ride. It's very satisfying as a conductor to work in concert with a singer and feel each other and you breathe together. And the response from the audience at the end is amazing."

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

POP CULTURE

Les Miserables has permeated pop culture over the years. Even the new series 2 Broke Girls had a joke about it (but sorry, girls, it's set after the French Revolution). In 1991 on Seinfeld, George Costanza couldn't get the song Master of the House out of his head. Lately, it's more likely you'd be humming I Dreamed a Dream. Susan Boyle's captivating rendition, from Britain's Got Talent in 2009, has been watched millions of times on YouTube. And Gleeks recognize it from a version by Rachel (Lea Michele) and Shelby (Idina Menzel) on Glee.

Changes at 25

Les Miz has been reworked for its 25th anniversary. It has the same story and songs, but the look is different, scenes have been trimmed, and the score has been reorchestrated. Here are a few of the changes:

• The turntable — a dominant feature of the original design — is gone. The new design has projections of Victor Hugo's paintings and drawings.

• The running time has been cut about 15 minutes to just under three hours. Several songs have been shortened, including Castle on a Cloud.

• The opening scene, formerly set in a prison, now takes place on a ship.

• The new orchestration updates the '80s synthesizer sound. The original Broadway production had 25 players in the pit; this version has 14.



BY THE NUMBERS

In Broadway history Les Miserables is the third-longest running show after The Phantom of the Opera and Cats. Here are some other facts about the musical from its website, www.lesmis.com.

21Number of languages Les Miserables has been translated into, including Japanese, Hebrew and even Estonian.

41Number of countries in which the show has played, from Argentina to Iceland to the Czech Republic. That includes 291 cities.

43,000

Number of professional performances worldwide.

125,000

The biggest single live audience to date, at the 1989 Australia Day concert in Sydney.

392Number of costumes in each performance, consisting of

some 1,782 items of clothing and 31 wigs.

IF YOU GO

Les Miserables

The musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg runs through Feb. 12 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa. $55-$110. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

• Look for a review of Les Miserables on Etc, Page 2B, later this week.

No, not like the forgettable drama made in 1998. In the works is an adaptation of the stage musical with some big names in the cast, according to imdb.com: Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, Sacha Baron Cohen as Thenardier, Anne Hathaway as Fantine and Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thenardier. And the possibility that is causing the most buzz: Taylor Swift being considered for Eponine. The Universal film, directed by Oscar winner Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), is slated to be released Dec. 7.

THE MOVIE

'Les Miserables' brings spruced-up production to Straz Center for 25th anniversary tour 02/01/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 3:30am]

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