Wednesday, April 25, 2018
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Review: 'Les Miserables' is leaner, darker but still stunning entertainment

A lot has changed in the re-imagined production of Les Miserables now playing at the Straz Center in Tampa. Gone is the revolving turntable, and the show has new orchestration and a quickened pace that cuts the running time by about 15 minutes.

But what's the same — and what perhaps comes through even more powerfully — is the connection between the audience and characters who deliver some of the most entrancing and memorable songs in musical theater, set amid a story of love and redemption in post-revolution France.

As directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, this 25th anniversary production has a darker rawness than the original, a tone set in the first booming notes of the orchestra and the angry voices of the chain gang.

In place of the turntable, a famous piece of the Broadway show's staging that symbolized Jean Valjean's journey, are towering, multi-story set pieces and a somber projected backdrop inspired by Victor Hugo paintings. Smaller pieces move swiftly between scenes to form the interior of the innkeeper's crusty home, the slums and the awesome ramshackle barricade.

Movement is still a crucial part of the show. In fact, the characters rarely stop, the animated backdrop simulates movement through the sewer tunnels below 1830s Paris, and the special effect in Javert's final soliloquy is a showstopper.

Will Les Mis fans miss the turntable? Maybe, especially in the barricade scenes and showdowns between Javert and Valjean. But overall, set designer Matt Kinley has created a more realistic setting.

Will fans miss anything with the shorter songs? Definitely not.

This reworked show is buoyed by a top-notch cast. There was not a weak vocal link in Wednesday's show. Understudy Richard Todd Adams played Valjean Wednesday night, taking over for J. Mark McVey. Adams has a commanding, angry presence as Valjean and a powerful voice that faltered only slightly in some higher, falsetto parts. It's tough to beat McVey though, who has performed the role of Valjean about 2,900 times. (He returns Sunday to finish the run in Tampa.)

Betsy Morgan's Fantine is one of the cast's strongest players, delivering a visceral performance as an unfortunate factory worker-turned-prostitute. Her rendition of heartwrenching ballad I Dreamed a Dream is one of the best I've ever heard; she wisely chooses to scale back some parts, allowing the power of the lyrics to shine through in a song that is easily oversung.

As Valjean's pursuer Javert, Andrew Varela has a convincing snarl; Max Quinlan plays hopeless romantic Marius with a head-in-the-clouds smile; and Chasten Harmon evokes a scrappy soulfulness in Eponine, who breaks out in Act 2 solo On My Own with a tender but big voice. Richard Vida's weasly Thenardier is a cross between a deranged pirate and a court jester, but Shawna M. Hamic as his wife steals the laughs with spot-on comedic timing.

New orchestrations by Chris Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker forgo much of the original '80s-pop synthesizer sound, an improvement that adds to the raw quality. Music director Robert Billig leads a smaller pit, down to 14 in this show from 25 in the Broadway production.

The show is still a solid three hours, but it often feels shorter. Whatever it is that makes Les Miserables such a powerful, resonant show — the majestic songs that stay in your head for days, the universal themes of love and redemption — it's all still there.

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