THEATER | “Les Miserables” does it all night long at the Orpheum Theatre

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If one were to compare Broadway musicals to lovers, Les Miserables would be the one who goes at it with great force and vigor for hours on end. You have to appreciate the stamina, and you suspect that some people would be really into that sort of thing, but it’s also completely exhausting and a little painful.

METRO says that “if you see just one show all year, it should be Les Miserables.” I’d say that’s true for those theatergoers whose favorite thing about shows is sheer Broadwayness. On the dial from less Broadway to more Broadway, Les Miserables cranks the Broadway to 11 and doesn’t touch that dial for the next three hours.

Claude-Michel Schönberg’s 1985 epic currently stands as the world’s longest-running musical, and a film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway is slated for release next year. The production camped at the Orpheum Theatre until December 18 is the 25th anniversary reboot created last year by superproducer Cameron Mackintosh.

Having never seen the original, I can’t comment on the nature of the changes, but I can tell you that this production had me plastered to the back of my seat from beginning to end. Schönberg’s score features songs of many moods—angry, jubilant, wistful—but they’re all intense, and even Jean Valjean’s softly whispered prayer builds to falsetto pyrotechnics that had the opening night crowd whooping. After a quarter-century of that, the Lord must be sending Valjean straight to voicemail.

The musical is based on Victor Hugo’s massive 1862 novel, and there are a lot of plots and subplots to follow. At the center of everything is Jean Valjean (J. Mark McVey), who steals bread to feed his starving sister and her child and—this being France circa 1815—gets 19 years of hard labor, including the penalty for trying to escape. Upon his escape he meets the beautiful young mother Fantine (Betsy Morgan) who—this being France circa 1815—has been forced into prostitution and subsequently beaten to death for being insufficiently enthusiastic about her work. Valjean pledges to care for Fantine’s daughter Cosette (first Kylie McVey, then Jenny Latimer), which gets complicated given that Valjean is on the run from vindictive cop Javert (Andrew Varela). Meanwhile, the People decide to revolt, which gets complicated given that only about 1% of the 99% actually show up to man the barricades.

Fortunately, everything moves at a good clip, and under the direction of Laurence Connor and James Powell, the elements of Matt Kinley’s set spin from one arrangment to another even more quickly and frequently than France’s goverment was being rearranged in those days. I’d like to say the show never got boring, but that would be a lie: it does stop often for songs, and once you realize what any given round of bellowing is about, you can let your attention drift. There’s so much self-righteous ranting in song form, about so many things, that I hope they’re planning to tap Schönberg for Fox News: The Musical. Herbert Kretzmer’s English translation of the original French lyrics by Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel incorporates rhymes so uninspired that I started playing a game where at the end of one line, I’d ascertain what the most obvious rhyming word would be and guess how the next line was going to get there.

As for the cast, I can only report that they are entirely up to the task of delivering this thundering fare without reprieve. The musical doesn’t require them to act so much as pose, and it must be said, they pose well. The one moment at which I actually identified with a character was at the very end, when a weary Jean Valjean yearns to be free of his yoke. Then all the fallen revolutionaries marched in to escort Valjean up to heaven, and once again, the yoke was on us.

This production is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you’ll know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

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