Saturday, June 23, 2018
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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 [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

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