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Opinion: ‘Les Miserables’ moving, re-invented

January 31, 2013
By SARAH REED - Special to the Weekender , The Herald-Star

PITTSBURGH - The smoke and clamor of a ravaging war on the human emotions has cleared from Pittsburgh's Benedum Center, where audiences were recently stormed by a gargantuan reinvention of the beloved Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg musical retelling of Victor Hugo's classic tale, "Les Miserables."

The 25th anniversary restaging, featuring an arsenal of new design and directional elements, remained true to the emotional potency synonymous with previous professional productions of the celebrated musical.

Emerging into the bright new world of liberty after 19 years of brutal imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister, her child and himself, prisoner 24601, encumbered by his yellow ticket-of-leave, which brands him as a criminal, finds himself at the mercy of a world unwilling to embrace his existence. When his journey as a free man leads him in the path of a compassionate bishop - the hardened former convict Jean Valjean - though initially discourteous toward the holy man's genuine respect of him, is compelled by strength greater than his own deep-seated bitterness and distrust of humanity to transform his own life and the lives of those he encounters.

Undertaking the enormously complex central character, Peter Lockyer's Jean Valjean began his journey as a potently and sympathetically dehumanized and bitter man, who through the restoration of his faith in mankind and his newfound faith in God, transformed into a man of complete compassion. Lockyer's vocal performance further enriched his satisfying portrayal. His most remarkable musical expression came as his Valjean gently breathed a prayer of protection over his beloved Cosette's love, Marius, in the renowned ballad "Bring Him Home."

A decidedly subtle yet magnificently ominous air resonated through Andrew Varela's Javert. Crowning Varela's performance was his strikingly rich singing voice, which proved especially magnificent as he delivered Javert's resolute, self-driven pledge to recapture Valjean in "Stars."

As Fantine, a worker in Valjean's factory who endures supreme desecrating methods of ensuring income to send to the guardians of her sickly young daughter Cosette, Genevieve LeClerc exuded a constant warmth and tenderness. LeClerc's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" emitted an undeniably powerful sensation of endearing gentleness, while her interpretation of Fantine's delusional deathbed lullaby to her faraway Cosette aroused immense sorrow.

The playful shoving and teasing of Briana Carlson-Goodman's Eponine, a young street waif unrequitedly affectionate toward Marius, a young French Revolutionary student smitten by Cosette, brought a winsome and touching quality to her characterization. Her performance of Eponine's signature ballad "On My Own" brimmed with passion and was peppered by Carlson-Goodman's unique pop-influenced approach, which though executed well, was not necessary to her role or to the highly romantic love song; while her duet "A Little Fall of Rain," with Devin Ilaw's nurturing Marius, commanded profound exertion on one's tear ducts.

Alone, Ilaw's boyishly tender Marius was an absolute delight. His soft tenor voice beautifully lent itself to such romantic songs as "In My Life" and "A Heart Full of Love," combining in both numbers Carlson-Goodman and Lauren Wiley's extremely delicate and gracefully voiced Cosette. Ilaw also displayed an astounding vocal depth in Marius' lamenting ballad "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables," in which the young man mourns the deaths of his fellow Revolutionary school friends.

And, Jason Forbach as Enjolras, the revolutionary students' fearless and totally dedicated leader, exuded a very pleasing combination of innate courage and paternal understanding. Forbach also lent superb vocals to such songs as "Do You Hear the People Sing?"

In contrast with previous productions of "Les Miserables," very little is available to assuage the oppressive atmosphere that pervades throughout the grand tale. Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, who usually afford the musical the greatest deal of laughter through their greedy misdeeds, particularly in their powerhouse number "Master of the House," only garnered brief chuckles in this production.

The interpretation of the comical song in this production was noticeably bawdy and was performed stiffly by Timothy Gulan, whose Monsieur Thenardier was quite sadistic on the whole; and by Shawna M. Hamic, whose mockingly toned Madame Thenardier received the most laughs, despite Hamic's sometimes repetitive and overdone gestures. Joseph Spieldenner's perpetually inebriated revolutionary student, Grantaire, was particularly comical while he teased Marius about his rapturous romantic outpourings; however, an occasional outstanding sensation of pitiable fearfulness evoked a sense of sobering sadness throughout his portrayal.

The most noticeable difference between previous productions of the musical and this revised staging was the set design.

Adorning the sides of the stage were two utterly drab-textured balconies with connected passageways underneath, serving various purposes throughout the production. The occasional entrance of two mammoth moveable pieces of scenery, which converged to create massive buildings, formulated a heart-racing sense of claustrophobia and exuded an overwhelming sense of poverty and filth, especially throughout the musical's dismal street scenes.

However, the grandest revision of all came in the form of projections, which gave several of the musical's locales a realistic sense of depth.

At times, these projections even moved, particularly as the actors progressed away from them, such as when Valjean traverses the vast and murky sewers with the wounded Marius, and as the determined gang of revolutionaries march proudly down a Paris street during Act One's triumphant finale "One Day More."

Though aesthetically different from other professional productions of "Les Miserables" in an assortment of ways, and despite its occasional unclearness in direction and plot execution, and its rushed tempos and noticeable re-orchestrations, this production delivered the intense emotional power and the all-encompassing melodiousness expected of a "Les Miserables" production. The reconceived production most assuredly, in Marius' love-struck words, "struck to the bone in a moment of breathless delight."

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