New 25th anniversary tour of ‘Les Misérables’ is revolutionary

Lawrence Clayton (Jean Valjean) “Brings Him Home” in the new national tour of “Les Misérables.”

Les Misérables without the turntable? How is that possible?”

It surprised me the number of times I heard this question when I told people about this tour over the past few days. The thunderous original production, which opened in London in 1985, captivated our hearts for decades. I saw Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s original staging twice: once in Detroit when my parents took me to see the unforgettable first national tour (which starred Chicago diva Hollis Resnik as Fantine and Tony-winner Victoria Clark as Madame Thénardier) and then in my late teens when I saw it in London (and was lucky enough to catch the original Eponine, Frances Ruffelle, who just happened to be revisiting her role for a few months).

Yes: the giant turntable, which spun that huge barricade so we could see it from all sides during the fighting scenes, was central to the staging. But not essential. This mega-musical’s material stands on its own.

This entirely sung-through adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel — which follows fugitive Jean Valjean’s journey to escape his past and seek redemption, with most of the action taking place during the cloud of an unsuccessful rebellion in 1832 Paris — is one of the most beloved musicals of the last few decades. I’m sure many of you can sing large chunks of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s powerballad-heavy score — or at least the tragic Fantine’s theme song, thanks to Ms. Susan Boyle. Les Mis is part of our pop culture.

So, while I was anticipating some different staging, sets and costumes in this “25th Anniversary Tour,” I wasn’t expecting to feel like I was experiencing this show for the first time.

Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell (why does it always take two directors to do this show?) have delivered a completely fresh interpretation, making this a more resourceful, cinematic and propulsive Les Mis. Gone is the chain-banging chain gang that opens up the show; in its place the scrim lifts to reveal a tableau of weary fugitives oaring a giant vessel — one of many surprisingly powerful new visuals.

Even Fantine’s big song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” which you’d think has been done to death (pardon the pun), is given a forceful, pleading interpretation (by the fabulous Betsy Morgan), rather than the typical cry-on-the-stage-defeated rendition.

Stunning projections, inspired by Victor Hugo’s paintings, effectively set the locale without beating us over the head.

And while barricade isn’t as imposing as before, it’s still a sight to behold. However, (SPOILER!) poor Gavroche is forced to die offstage, since the set piece can’t spin around to allow us to see him cross enemy lines. A major misstep, but overcome by the strength of the whole.

Still, any production of Les Mis would be undermined by a less-than-perfect Jean Valjean, and Lawrence Clayton more than meets the demands. This is not an impersonation of Colm Wilkinson, as many prior Valjeans have, quite frankly, been. Clayton’s Valjean wears his guilt on his sleeve. His debt in life will always go unpaid, and it’s not until the final moments that he finds true release. That’s not to mention his singing of the score, which is brave, soulful and spine-tingling. His “Bring Him Home” is a masterclass in song phrasing.

I could devote paragraphs to to rest of the supporting cast (including standout performances from Shawna M. Hamic and Michael Kostroff as the delightfully devious Thénardiers), but I’ll just say they’re uniformly excellent. Except for Chaston Harmon as Eponine. Not only did she have some significant pitch problems with her big number “On My Own,” but she lacks any sense of vulnerability — which, as we all know, is essential to this role. But I never liked Eponine anyway, so this wasn’t as big a problem as it could have been.

To top off this wonderfully reimagined production, new orchestrations by Chris Jahnke (who orchestrated Legally Blonde, The Musical, of all things) give the show a fresh, contemporary sound by toning down the hokey, synthesized accompaniment that seeped through John Cameron’s original arrangements, and coloring it with percussion and brass.

CTA Index Rating: 10 out of 10 (We have a world-class production of a universally-loved musical here in Chicago, featuring an excellent leading-man performance. See it.)

“Les Misérables” plays through Feb. 27 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. More info here >

18 thoughts on “New 25th anniversary tour of ‘Les Misérables’ is revolutionary

  1. It’s a visually stunning production and has a lot more color than the “original”. I especially loved all the projections that they used, especially the one in the sewers when Valjean is carrying Marius and running away from Javert. I also really liked the ghosts of martyrs carrying the candles during “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, I thought that was really touching. The only mediocre part I thought was Javert’s suicide. When I saw it at least from the angle I was seated at the Barbican it looked rather strange. It could have been a great tableau from far away but from my point it just looked like Javert was lying down on a machine and struggling to get up.

    Check out the 25th anniversary concert on DVD, it has some interesting moments. Norm Lewis plays Javert and he is great. Nick Jonas plays Marius and he is rather sad.

    1. Yes — the sewer sequence was really well done. I loved how we plunged down into it via the projections. From where I was sitting (center orchestra), Javert’s suicide was rather effective.

  2. I’m looking forward to this tour’s stop in Los Angeles this summer. I wasn’t too thrilled about the drastic changes at first because I felt they were inferior to what had been serving the musical very well for the last 25 years, but I agree that those elements aren’t absolutely necessary. The original staging will always be a thrilling work of art to me but I’m glad this production’s re-thought direction is not giving the show a bad name.

    One thing though, it seems to be a very popular point to make in the many, many reviews I’ve read of this new production, of how the new orchestrations solve the problem of the original orchestration’s 80s flavor. The original keyboard sounds are of an acquired taste but the orchestration has already gone through multiple updates during the last 20 years. The most successful of these too place in 1995 and was done specifically for the show’s famous 10th anniversary concert. In that update, those twanging 80s patches were replaced by much softer, neutral ones. The result is a timeless sound for a timeless story. Look up the concert on YouTube and you’ll see not a single comment in any of those videos claims the show sounds dated. In fact, many are surprised the concert took place in 1995. These changes were then incorporated into every production at the time.

    Interestingly, those 80s keyboard sounds made a puzzling comeback several years ago. Apparently it was decided they were iconic and they continue to be used in the major productions to this day. They are used currently in the original London production as well as the Japanese production. I ‘ve been a huge fan of and have followed this show very closely for the last 23 years and I’m still puzzled over why the producer himself states publicly that the new orchestrations were meant to be an improvement over the originals while calling the originals iconic and still employing them in his long-running original production?

    I intimately know the original orchestration and don’t be swayed by claims made by producers or musical directors who are obligated to sell the show. The new orchestrations on tour aren’t terrible but they are a heavily adapted, watered-down, and electronically supplemented version of the originals with some boomy, swishy instrumental ornamentation thrown in to complete the illusion it’s a new animal.

    The new orchestrations don’t do the musical justice, imo. Too heavy on brass and often reedy, they may still feature most of the originals melody lines and arrangement but they lack balance, are too abrasive, and they are overshadowed by the increased reliance on canned sounds.

    It is an incredible improvement over the embarrassment that squawked in the pit of the 2006 Broadway revival (that wasn’t an adaptation but mostly all new orchestrations, which sadly, left much to be desired in what sounded like a 2 piece band), but still very much inferior to the thoughtfully updated, original orchestration that is featured in the timeless 10th anniversary concert.

    1. Hi, LaMisere –

      Thanks reading my blog, and for taking the time to edify us on the history of Les Miserables’ orchestrations! Musical orchestrations are one of my favorite things to analyze and compare, so I completely get your passion for it.

      The last time I heard the score in a theatre was around 1994 in London — so it was the original “iconic” sound. And my continued association with the score is the OLC recording (I have the Symphonic recording, but not a fan of the cast, and I only listen to the OBC to hear Judy Kuhn’s flawless Cosette). I have seen the 1995 concert, but I assumed the orchestrations were more lush because of the size of the orchestra.

      I get what you’re saying about these new 25th Anniversary charts — there are times where I genuinely missed that big, booming sound (and the turntable!) But, from where I was sitting a few weeks ago viewing this new tour, the sound coming from the pit was rich and layered, and made me hear things in the score I’d simply ignored before.

  3. I agree with the review. I really disliked the Epponine in the Chicago production. I really tired of the “American Idol” style of singing. The music deserves better. The actor doing Marius was outstanding.

  4. I really missed the turntable. And I agree Javert’s death was not as riveting as before. I couldn’t even tell he jumped…. I don’t think he moved his feet an inch. Eponine was at least as good as all the others, but I live for that last haunting, beautiful note in “On My Own” and she completely missed it. She didn’t flub it–just didn’t even try to execute it that way. Grantaire and Thenardier had zero grit as well and the comic timing was ever so slightly off.

    I saw the original show 17 years ago in Chicago and again in London a few years back. I definitely prefer the original version. Both my husband and I left shaking our heads asking, “Didn’t that seem really short?” Javert have to speed sing/shout many of his songs to keep to this new, shortened production. They really did his character a disservice as I always connect with Javert’s struggle between right and righteous but the way he charged through his most moving pieces destroyed that for both of us. Gavroche’s death also lost all it’s power by being hidden behind the barricade. There was no indication that he even threw back some ammo, so his death was not only weak, but pointless! One of the themes of this show is the power of self-sacrifice and it was lost here.

    I enjoyed the show and will always love Les Mis, but for the first time, I left with dry eyes and raised eyebrows. Instead of recounting all the moving scenes we picked at all the flaws.

    1. I meant Eponine was at least as good as the other performers in THIS cast… Lea Salonga is my favorite Eponine. The star from this cast was Marius.

      1. Apparently, one of my friends iornfmed me in response to the Taylor Swift thing, Nick Jonas played Marius in the 25th anniversary thing and some people think that he didn’t suck. Could Taylor Swift achieve something similar with the role of Eponine?But see, the difference there is that Marius is annoying, so it’s okay to have a teeny bopper celebrity play him. Eponine I am way too attached (and so are a lot of other people, I suspect) to her character and she is way too tragic and awesome to be played by someone culturally inane.

    2. I was going to write my own review, but this sums it up perfectly. Javert was weakened here and I was completely disappointed by the performance of the suicide scene. They ruined the song.

      Improvements were some of the lighting, and the projected backgrounds, especially the sewer scenese and, from my viewpoint, Javert’s fall from the bridge. I disagree here because it took me by surprise and was very cinematic. It looked like he was really falling. The light closing on his arm and then hand were wonderful.

      Someone should be shot (pun intended) for destroying the Gavroche death scene. It is one of the play’s most emotional moments and was completely ruined. Hopefully, there will be so many complaints that they will retool the show, otherwise, I fear this may be a short lived production.

  5. As I agree with you that I enjoyed some of the new projections and backgrounds, I disagree about some of the vocals. I felt that Eponine, Cosette, & Valjean fell short on the power and strength needed to execute their respective songs. I also felt the Thenardiers had some timing and phrasing issues. Normally their scene is full of laughs from the audience, but most bits were lost because it was rushed. I felt the phrasing was “off” in many of the songs – especially in the first act. Their was a lot of over-acting, and the show felt “whiny” from beginning to end. I do think the boy who played Marius was fantastic.

    Overall, I agree with Heather E., that my husband and I also left the performance scratching our heads at what we’d seen. We both have many years of professional theater behind us, both performing and in the pit, and appreciate the actors for their performances and hard work. I do not think the casting was very good for the show I saw.

  6. I saw this “new, re-staged” production of Les Miserables, last Saturday. It was a disappointment. I guess the producer and director felt that in the days of YouTube, audiences would lose interest and have trouble sitting through the original production.

    So many of the songs had been re-timed, sped-up that the performers had a hard time getting the words out. And with the sped-up songs, most of the feeling and emotion was removed. Often, the interactions between characters devolved into just shouting at each other. This was particularly the case in the numbers with Valjean and Javert. In some songs, parts had been reduced to just spoken dialog.

    At the end of the first act, the man sitting next to me turned to his wife and said, “I had a hard time following the story.”

    As we left the theater, my date said to me, “It’s like they removed the heart and soul of the story.” Sad.

    1. I saw this production in Seattle last night and left with mixed emotions. There was a lot of dialogue that I didn’t remember from the original (more than 10 years since I last saw it) and it seemed out of place. I felt the vocals started weak; the actress playing Fantine sounded like she had marbles in her mouth and Valjean had neither the depth of vocal tone nor emotional connection with the lyrics at the start. (He was fantastic by the middle and end, however. “Bring Him Home” was amazing.) I didn’t appreciate how the actors changed up some of the classic songs; they are classic for a reason. I also didn’t buy the actress playing the role of Eponine. (She’s the Thenardier’s biological daughter, right? How did they end up with a black child?) I think she’s probably a good singer, but I didn’t like her in that role. I was particularly put off by her heavy-breathing (noted by someone else) and convulsive death throes, which were quite distracting from the tender message of “A Little Fall of Rain.” We also had an unfortunate technical malfunction where her mic stopped working for the end of “On My Own.” The entire theatre went silent in order to hear what we could, but what horrible timing.

      I didn’t like the change to the ship in the opening. How does Valjean get his yellow ticket of leave in the middle of an ocean? I miss the original barricade, which to this day remains the best set I have ever seen in any production. I wasn’t into the video screen backdrop, although I thought it worked very well for the sewer sequence. I liked the effect used for Javert’s suicide in the previous production, although this one was okay… I just don’t think it was executed very well. You could see the bridge breaking apart to leave the stage, which took away from the scene and made it look fake, whereas the previous method of raising the bridge made it really look like he was falling.

      Another big complaint was how bawdy this show was. Some of the situations, lyrics, and inferences I remembered, but I don’t remember any simulated sex acts from the previous production, or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. Hopefully my 8 year old daughter wasn’t!

      All in all, I thought the little boy who played Gavroche stole the show.

      1. AB – I saw thes how Sunday in Seattle, and agree whoheartedly with your assessment. Everyone else seems in love wih this production, but I felt the voalcs were rushed and often shoutey – favoring power over subtlety, plus it sounded like everyone was out of bredth all the time. I also didn’t like th jazzy visual effects. THis is theater, but it felt like a 3d movie. I missed the turntable. Gavroche certainly stole the show. I was also a little taken a back by the “bawdy” scenes being in the audience with my daughter. I’m pretty liberal about sex in shows where it belongs ( I love Spring Awakening) and I was ok explaining to my kid that those were prostitutes, but the similuated sex was just not necessary and very unexpected.

  7. This was my 5th Les Mis I’ve seen. The 1st four were the original — I saw them in London, Toronto, Detroit, and Tempe, AZ. This new production I saw 6/10 in Tempe, AZ. I think the sets were much better, Javert’s suicide number was fantastic entertainment. J. Mark McVey’s Bring Him Home was worth the price of admission. It was as good as any I’ve seen live or on the special PBS broadcasts or heard on any of the numerous CD versions i have. The problem I had, however, with this 25th anniversary production is that “acting” took precedence over singing the songs. This definitely impacted the greatness of songs such as On My Own, Dream the Dream, A Little Fall of Rain, and Fantine’s Death. For instance, in A Little Fall of Rain, Eponine is panting heavily while trying to sing her dying song. I also thought this national tour had the weakest Fantine (Betsy Morgan) and Eponine (Chasten Harmon) I have ever seen or heard. Both ladies are very talented, but they were awful for these roles. The people sitting around me all agreed with the beginning of the second half of the show, that Eponine better belt it out for On My Own or it would put a real damper on the production. Chasten Harmon did not belt it out except in a couple of verses — whether this was her being in the wrong role for her or the musical direction she followed, it was much inferior to any rendition of that number I have ever heard. This is a shame because next to Bring Him Home, On My Own when done right is the next best number in the musical. With all this said, if this was the first Les Mis I ever saw, i would be enthralled and thoroughly entertained. Unfortunately, it was my fifth, if not for McVey and Andrew Varela (Javert), this would have been a great disappointment.

  8. Natalie Beck (Lake Forest HS ’10) joins the cast in Denver, understudying Cosette. She went to high school with my kids, then to Westminster Choir College in New Jersey.

  9. I saw the show last weekend and was astounded by just how great it was. I grew up listening to the obc CDs, and saw Les Mis’ last tour. Without a doubt this is the single greatest musical I’ve ever seen. It kicked the broadway versions wicked, phantom, lion king, Mamma Mia, legally blonde, to the ground! I was skeptical about the missing turn table, but it turned out to be spectacular! I loved that you missed gaveroche’s death, as it entitled the audience to use their imaginations, it also showed the responses of the young men in the barricade, something that has been lacking in the past. I adored the updated score and settings. The lack of real imaging in older productions annoyed me drastically. I loved the homage paid to the original production with Javert’s bridge leap. I also adored Fontine. I always felt a little apathetic to her character, and dislike her on the obc. The actress in this version focused on her innocence. I comprehended he’d tragedy. And really felt for her. The one part I disliked was eponine, she seemed more angry than love struck. That bothered me. My favorite part wad however Marius’ tourture. He actually mourned Eponine, to the depth of which I’ve yet not seen.

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