Strong Voices In Freer, Newly Staged 'Les Miserables' At Bushnell

Storm the barricades! The new national tour of "Les Miserables" — which began just two weeks ago in Providence and is now at The Bushnell through Oct. 8 — is a stirring, thumping, heart-throbbing return of a pop opera whose themes of revolution and righteousness seem particularly well suited to our current turbulent times.

"Les Mis" is a melange of moral dilemmas. Solo expressions of despair and longing give way to grand protests, with flags and bullets flying. A bunch of courageous people are shown following their consciences and trying to do the right things for each other. Their stories do not all end happily.

It takes nearly 70 hours to listen to an audiobook version of Victor Hugo's original "Les Miserables" novel. This musical — originally written in French by Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, Herbert Kretzmer and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, then adapted for its long-running London and Broadway productions by James Fenton, Trevor Nunn and John Caird — condenses the story down to a swift three hours.

For decades, this judicious abridgment was accomplished with the aid of a turntable stage. But that trademark scenic apparatus was jettisoned for the recent Broadway revival of "Les Mis" on which this tour is based. What's remarkable about this decision is that the sets are now fuller and wider. Huge swinging doors, a stone bridge and three-story buildings emerge from the wings, or drop down from above. There are also massive projections, backdrops and a scrim that helps create fancy lighting effects.

Some of these stunning sets can barely be appreciated because you're viewing them through a mist of fog and gunsmoke.

Not having a gigantic Lazy Susan to whisk the set pieces around actually raises the stakes design-wise. It also lets the show find its own rhythms and not have the timing set by the technology. This is a "Les Mis" tour with room to breathe. The dozens-strong ensemble can easily fan out across the stage. The throngs of people — in street scenes, in taverns, in battle — are as impressive a stage effect as any of those bridges and buildings.

All the lead players — and there are many of them — have fine singing voices. "Les Mis" is known for its showcase solo songs: Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream," Jean Valjean's "Who Am I?" and "Bring Him Home," Eponine's "On My Own," Javert's "Soliloquy." There are also the rousing ensemble numbers "The People's Song" and "One Day More," and the comic duets by the sneaky Thénardier couple. These catchy numbers are delivered with the clear enunciation that's needed to keep up with the rapidly shifting plot in this action-packed, decades-spanning sung-through musical.

Nick Cartell is quietly strong as the highly moral Jean Valjean. Josh Davis, moody rather than one-dimensionally malevolent, is a good match for him as Javert, the lawman who believes that Valjean's criminal missteps have made him unredeemable.

Is there another musical besides "Les Miserables" that  has as many strong roles for women as it does for men? (Please don't say "Mamma Mia.") Melissa Mitchell imbues the ill-fated Fantine with grace and grit. Phoenix Best stands out as Eponine, whose unrequited love for Marius makes her one of the most tragic victims of "Les Mis"'s many soul-searching struggles.

Appreciating the earnestness and earthiness that Phoenix Best brings to Eponine leads to an admittedly odd complaint: Why does everyone onstage here have to be so gosh-darn attractive? Considering how much time they spend in the dirty streets, battlegrounds and sewers of Paris, everyone looks healthy, fit, clean and fresh-scrubbed. The leader of the revolt, Enjolras (Matt Shingledecker, last seen at The Bushnell three years ago as Fiyero in "Wicked") is a buff blonde surfer-boy type. The sheer overwhelm of gorgeousness somewhat diminishes the purity and radiance of Cosette (Jillian Butler), who has trouble making herself distinctive in such beautiful company.

"Les Miserables" is a clean, carefully orchestrated, neatly condensed version of a sprawling novel about a very messy, bloody period in French history. Its orderliness can be offputting at times, but that same sense of control can yield some extraordinary moments — soaring harmonies, astonishing death scenes, tender love duets. It can be an overpowering sensation.

LES MISERABLES — music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, original French lyrics by Alan Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer — is at The Bushnell through Oct. 8. Tickets are $22.50 to $112.50. 860-987-5900 and bushnell.org.

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