The 25th-anniversary production of “Les Miserables,’’ now playing at the Opera House, qualifies as a truly extraordinary theatrical experience when high-tech wizardry blends seamlessly with old-fashioned storytelling, framed within a glorious musical score.
Between its 16-year run on Broadway, a 2006 revival, and Susan Boyle’s inescapable YouTube performance of “I Dreamed a Dream’’ on “Britain’s Got Talent,’’ it’s hard to imagine a fresh take on this show. But in the hands of co-directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, this production is nothing less than stunning, capturing Hugo’s themes of injustice, idealism, revenge, and redemption through performances anchored in characters. Gone is the turntable that gave a vivid sense of the sweep of the saga, replaced by projections inspired by Hugo’s moody, atmospheric paintings and cinematic video and lighting sequences that make the audience members feel like they’re on the streets and in the sewers with the characters.
While cynics may sneer at the emotional intensity of Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s adaptation, Claude-Michel Schonberg’s stirring music and Herbert Kretzmer’s simple lyrics honor the spirit of Hugo’s 1862 novel. And, oh, those songs. Yes, Betsy Morgan’s delivery of Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream’’ will give you goosebumps, but so will “Who Am I?’’, “Drink With Me,’’ “On My Own,’’ and “One Day More.’’ That’s because at the center of the historical events are a series of portraits of humble individuals who make heroic sacrifices for what they believe. Directors Connor and Powell have gathered an ensemble whose members are not only superb singers, but impressive actors who make these characters recognizable and sympathetic, so we are absorbed by their drama and root for their success even when we fear it won’t end well.
The catalyst for the action is Jean Valjean (played by J. Mark McVey with tender vulnerability), a man who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Now released but bitter, he resorts to theft again until, touched by a bishop’s kindness, he promises to devote his life to good. While Valjean changes his name and succeeds as a factory owner and town mayor, he is relentlessly pursued by Javert (Andrew Varela), a policeman who doesn’t believe any criminal can be reformed. Rather than make Valjean the saint and Javert the villain, this production makes even clearer the similarities between the two men - their conviction that what they’re doing is right and that God is on their side. Varela’s delivery of “Stars,’’ in which he swears by the stars that he will find Valjean, becomes less of a promise and more of a prayer.
As Valjean spends his life showing mercy - rescuing a dying prostitute named Fantine (Morgan), raising her daughter Cosette (Julie Benko), and then rescuing the radical student Marius (Max Quinlan) whom Cosette has fallen in love with - we also meet the godless, greedy Thenardiers (Shawna M. Hamic and Richard Vida), Eponine (the gorgeous-voiced Chasten Harmon), whose love for Marius is unrequited, and the doomed student rebels. Every scene provides an opportunity to illustrate the contrasting ways Valjean and Javert have chosen to serve their God, culminating in the moment when Javert questions his choice and Valjean says, “when we love another, we see the face of God.’’
“Les Miserables’’ clocks in at nearly three hours, but this production is so breathtaking, you simply won’t want it to end.