By Leigh Austin
While most people find familiarity comforting, there’s a point at which the familiar becomes dull. For me, and I’m sure for many other die-hard Les Miserables fans, such a point came long ago. Yes, the show never fails to make me shed a tear or two, but I credit that more to the emotionally charged music by Claude-Michael Schonberg (lyrics by Alan Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel) than to the individual productions themselves. In fact, almost every production of Les Mis that I’ve seen since age five has been virtually the same. Enjolras always dies in the same picturesque pose, Thenardier mumbles the same “ad-libbed” jokes, and Javier leaps to his death with the help of the same series of poorly-rigged flies and swirling lights.
The absence of these often-overdone moments made the Paramount's production not only enjoyable, but memorable. Under the direction of Jim Corti, the production dared to do what others have feared: break Les Mis out of its “cookie cutter” mold and make it into something wholly different.
And the transformation is not only most noticable but most effective in the new approach to the set. A massive revolving staircase and an overhanging bridge that rises up like Phantom of the Opera’s infamous chandelier fills the stage in this production--a series of intricate pieces that could not be more different than the usual bare-bones look typically seen in Les Mis. Yet, even though designers Kevin Depinet and Jeffrey D. Kmiec manage to rethink and revitalize the show with their unique design, their pieces still pay homage to the Les Misconceit of using a revolve. The result is nothing less than stunning, as the new playing space provides Corti with ample opportunity to heighten the impact of dramatic moments like Javert’s suicide and Fantine’s angelic return at the play’s end.
The wonderfully original and well-composed technical elements are matched by a talented ensemble, most notably Hannah Corneau as Fantine, whose smooth, crystal clear voice makes Fantine’s sorrow even more heartbreaking. Travis Taylor as Enjolras sails effortlessly through each and every note, and Maryra Grandy’s darker, more subtle approach to the oftentimes overblown Madame Thenardier added an interesting and refreshing take on the character.
The weakest link in the show, unfortunately, was Jean Valjean (played here by Robert Wilde). He struggled vocally throughout the performance, especially in climatic songs like “Bring Him Home,” and his acting couldn’t save him from being overshadowed by more energetic performers. Despite the flaws of the main performer, though, this production offers a refreshing new twist on the traditional approach that is definitely worth seeing.
Les Miserables runs through April 26th at the Paramount Theatre. For more information:
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