Les Miz: Handsome production, strong cast, and no spinning set

The revolution may not be televised, but it will be on stage.
The revolution may not be televised, but it will be on stage.
Photo by Kyle Froman

Over the past quarter century, Les Miserables has stormed stages across the world, playing to untold masses of audience members yearning to toss off the shackles of subtlety for the thrill of spectacle.

Okay, I'll admit that's a little harsh on the show. It's certainly the best of the chandelier musicals that reigned in the 1980s. As much pop opera as a traditional musical, Claude-Michel Schonberg's and Herbert Kretzmer's music and lyrics provide an overpowering sweeping statement that fits the massive heft of Victor Hugo's original novel.

The latest incarnation is a 25th anniversary tour that has been barnstorming the United States for the past couple of years. It makes its second stop in Minneapolis this week, and is a bit different than what has been onstage before. Oh sure, all of the musical pomp is still there, as are all of the characters you love, but the staging has been simplified, and the show has, overall, been tightened (Tuesday's performance clocked in at under three hours!) all to the benefit of the action.

The familiar turntable set is gone, replaced by a still fairly complex, if not as overwhelming, set. A video projection screen dominates the back wall, providing context for the various scenes. Other settings are brought in to illustrate the many locations, but thankfully aren't spinning.

It's hard to underplay how important this change is. The turntable was always a star of the show, and easily distracted from the action. The actors also have one less thing to worry about and can invest that extra energy into their singing.

The touring company hosts a handsomely talented cast led by Peter Lockyer as convict-turned-hero Jean Valjean and Andrew Varela as the obsessed policeman Javert. Varela possesses a tremendous voice that he employs to great effect on each of Javert's key solo moments, earning extended applause on act one's "Stars."

Valjean's journey takes him through nearly 20 years of early 19th-century France, from being a prisoner to a parole-on-the-run to a mayor undone by his past and, finally, to a man and his ward in Paris who are swept up in an attempted revolution.

The story of his ward, Cosette, and her revolutionary lover, Marius, is a bit bland in comparison to the pain and heartbreak that is all around them, but Lauren Wiley and Devin Ilaw do solid work and even add in a bit of romantic spark.

The key young character is Eponine, the daughter of the dastardly Thenandiers (with whom Cosette spent time as a child in the care of the worst foster parents in the world) and who also, secretly, loves Marius. Her pain is well earned and Briana Carson-Goodman brings all of that out in her performance.

The Thenandiers serve as a constant burr to Jean Valjean and the other heroes, thieving their way through the underside of French society. While Shawna M. Hamic is mainly playing the surface of her character for laughs, Timothy Gulan gets into the bitter heart of his, bringing an edge to the role that makes a character that is easily tiresome the star of nearly every scene he is in.

Though the show has a deft pacing, the staging sometimes feels a bit leaden -- the "park and bark" opera phenomenon rearing its ugly head, I would guess. The times when the actors get a chance to sing and act provide plenty of life, while the quality of the performances moves us over any of the show's rough spots.


Les Miserables
Through Aug. 4
Orpheum Theatre
910 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 1.800.859.7469 or visit online.

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Orpheum Theatre

910 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403


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