Review: Operatic 'Les Misérables' brilliant, passionate but inconsistent at Naples Philharmonic

Scene from 'Les Miserables' by Cameron Mackintosh.

Photo by Deen van Meer, Deen van Meer

Scene from "Les Miserables" by Cameron Mackintosh.

Did you see this show? What did you think? Leave a comment below or e-mail your thoughts on "Les Miserables" to csilk@naplesnews.com. Your review might wind up in print or on naplesnews.com.

What: Beloved musical based on a Victor Hugo novel about French characters (The Wretched Poor) trying to survive in Paris

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25 through Saturday, Jan. 28; 2 p.m. Saturday and Jan. 28; and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29

Where: Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Boulevard, Naples

Cost: $104-$109; some shows sold out, limited seats available

Information: 800-597-1900 or thephil.org

On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.

— A re-designed and re-orchestrated vision of "Les Misérables" swung into the Philharmonic Tuesday. There's much to love - a towering Valjean, a thundering Javer, phantasmic effects and glorious voices. Yet, for all the soaring crescendo of sound, the production feels curiously inconsistent at times.

Based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, "Les Misérables" exists as one of the world's most beloved musicals. The show follows French characters over a multi-year period, especially ex-convict Jean Valjean and his struggle for redemption. The show explores a double handful of social issues - poverty, philosophy, politics, love, religion, justice and many more.

Claude-Michel Schonberg wrote the music, with lyrics from Herbert Kretzmer. Original orchestrations were by John Cameron; new ones are by Chris Janke.

This latter-day re-imagining - a 25th anniversary tour - might dismay some "Les Misérables" purists. Gone is the revolve - the iconic turntable stage. In are new sets, new lighting and new orchestrations. The orchestra also gets trimmed to 14 from 22, although it still booming and bombastic).

What's left resembles more opera than musical - gorgeous, ponderous, powerful but buried under its emotional weight and crushing themes. The show feels static and the performers almost nailed into place on the stage. There's almost no forward momentum to any of the scenes, no matter how beautifully performed - just a breathtaking river of song, a full stop that drops the pace, a set change and then repeat.

It feels like any progress the show makes with the audience - pulling them into the intricate world being created on stage - comes in gasping, wheezing heaves. So much of the passionate, intoxicating beauty of "Les Misérables" gets lost just trying to stay with the show as it fumbles the narrative and emotional threads again and again. The show is amazing, stunningly beautiful and thrilling - just in four-minute slices.

The production depends far to much on the sometimes-shaky acting skills of its performers to make the scenes work. Often, the pure power of the music and song proves enough - like a rousing 13-minute prologue that sees Valjean out of prison, robbing a bishop and then granted a new life. Other times - "Lovely Ladies," Valjean's bargain with the Thenardiers, any death scene - it collapses flat. The barricade sequence (lights! guns! songs!) brims with emotion - but the stop-and-start nature of the storytelling leaves it feeling interminable.

Designer Matt Kinley takes inspiration from Victor Hugo's original paintings to create intense, moody backgrounds that reflect the atmosphere of Paris. Innovative 3-D technology brings several important scenes to life, including Valjean's escape through the sewers and Javert's suicide; these are major wow moments.

One thing this new production does far better is drill into the emotional relationships between key characters and even the minor ones, especially the doomed love triangle between Cosette, Marius and Eponine. Links to the major themes - redemption, justice, brotherhood - feel stronger too. Look especially to scenes in the cafe and the barricade with an electric, clarion-voiced Jeremy Hays (Enolras) as he offers up his soul for liberty.

Paule Constable's brilliant, evocative lighting designs - sometimes there's real fire on stage - captivate. The vast majority of the stage itself sits in murky blackness for most of the night; the constant play of light and dark illustrates the way that Hugo examined the nature of law and grace.

The show's single best number comes when Max Quinlan (Marius) threads his way through a stage floor filled with lit candles when remembering fallen comrades during "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." His soaring voice brims with emotion. Other times, shafts of light pinpoint characters as if they were touched by God.

J. Mark McVey makes for a powerful, thundering Valjean, the tortured convict. His presence alone lifts the show several notches. Thundering, devastating prayer "Bring Him Home," sung while Marius prepares for battle, brings the show to a halt.

Andrew Varela brings a real menace - and another towering voice - to his unyielding Javert. Beyond the impressive graphics, he pours emotion and repentance in the character's final "Soliloquy" and inevitable suicide.

Understudy Hannah Shankman replaces Chasten Harmon as Eponine. Shankman brings a delicate, nuanced touch to the unloved, unwanted character - one that sometimes doesn't show. Her diva-esque belting of "On My Own" practically labeled the song with her name - and started the second-half with an unexpectedly powerful bang.

Betsy Morgan never settles into Fantine; her voice feels too thin to carry the iconic notes of "I Dreamed A Dream." Jenny Latimer offers a delicate quality for Cosette; her voice holds up, but the acting can be wooden.

The ensemble voices impress. "At the End of the Day" rolls off the stage, practically gripping the audience with a sense of winter's chill. Somber "Turning" - about lost sons and boyfriends - casts war in a new light. First-half closer "One Day More" - possibly one of the strongest curtain numbers in musical theater - is pure sonic pleasure, as is the triumphant "Finale."

The acting proves ... less resilient. Stiff, listless movement all but undoes the jouncy "Lovely Ladies" number (despite the imaginative prostitute costumes).

Likewise, the rousing "Master of the House" feels over-choreographed and under-fun. The Thenardiers (Richard Vida and Shawna M. Hamic) also come off much more as despicable buffoons in this production. Watch Hamic, as she proves masterful at facial expressions and other tiny acts of stagecraft that add to her character.

Despite the problems this "Les Misérables" delights - even enraptures - in many ways. Marvel at the haunting lighting and effects - or gasp while Javert leaps into the Seine. Weep openly as McVey's Valjean, lit only by a tiny shaft of light, opens his mouth and beseeches "Bring Him Home." Laugh with Shawna M. Hamic, her comical plum dress, feathered fan and the "Beggars at the Feast." Or simply stop, sit back, listen to the glorious voices of the ensemble and ask "Do You Hear the People Sing?"

What's your favorite song from "Les Misérables?" Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

Full Disclosure: Naples Daily News publisher Dave Neill is a member of the board of directors of the Philharmonic Center for the Arts.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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